Bad news, Mitt: You've lost the Big Bird fans in France and Brazil, according to a Friday afternoon post by Robert Mackey, who summarizes big news stories for the New York Times's Lede blog. Mackey, who has written for Al Franken's radio show and been a producer for the left-wing Pacifica public radio network, usually plays it fairly straight in his NYT posts.
But he was unusually passionate while flashing his disdain for the Romney campaign and those Americans who (horrors) think PBS is a drain on the federal government. The Times' knee-jerk reaction to such a puny cut in federal spending was revealing.
Mitt Romney’s promise, during Wednesday debate, to cut into America’s debt by ending the federal subsidy for public broadcasting generated an Internet backlash, and at least one popular new Twitter account, largely because the former management consultant appeared to suggest that the beloved “Sesame Street” character Big Bird was surplus to requirements.
Mr. Romney’s decision to run against Big Bird gladdened American conservatives, who have long complained of a liberal bias on public television and radio channels, but puzzled many viewers abroad, where local versions of the educational program are popular and well respected. In France, Le Monde reported that the slight against le Gros Oiseau threatened to spiral into “l’affaire Big Bird,” after President Obama -- experiencing a certain esprit d’escalier -- came up, a day late, with the retort: “Thank goodness somebody is finally getting tough on Big Bird. It’s about time. We didn’t know that Big Bird was driving the federal deficit.”
In a useful roundup of the comic images of an unemployed Big Bird circulating on social networks, the Brazilian newspaper O Globo reported, somewhat inaccurately, that Mr. Romney had tried to soften the blow by first telling viewers, “I love Garibaldo,” which is the name the character goes by in “Vila Sésamo.”
At least some of the confusion among viewers watching the debate from outside the United States centered on the question of how Mr. Romney expected to get votes by pledging to eliminate state support for televised educational programming, and news, which is taken for granted in much of the developed world.
As Joshua Keating explained in a post for Foreign Policy, scholars at New York University reported last year that Americans spend far less per capita on public broadcasting than a representative sample of 13 other nations, including France, Britain, Germany, Japan, Australia and Canada.
Even factoring in money provided by states and local governments, Americans pay less than $4 a year for the television and radio programming they get from PBS and NPR. Canadians and Australians pay about 8 times more per capita, the French and Japanese 14 times more, Britons 24 times more and Germans 41 times more.
In the context of the debate, though, what is probably more important than the fact that Americans actually pay a relatively small amount of money for public broadcasting is evidence that they are convinced that they are paying a lot more.
Mackey quoted Politico: “Most Americans think public broadcasting receives a much larger share of the federal budget than it actually does.” Later he accused Romney of taking advantage of voter ignorance.
It might seem strange for anyone who knows that the federal government spends so little on PBS to begin a discussion of necessary cuts there, but perhaps Mr. Romney has calculated that the undecided voters he is chasing might be among the three-quarters of the American population that thinks the subsidy is far larger than it is.