When Mitt Romney vowed to cut government funding for the Public Broadcasting Service during Wednesday night’s presidential debate, network chief Paula Kerger says she “just about fell off the sofa.”
Romney’s remarks – and in particular his decision to single out the beloved Big Bird – sparked an immediate uproar on social media.
And on Thursday, PBS issued an unusually strongly worded statement in response to the attack. “Governor Romney does not understand the value the American people place on public broadcasting and the outstanding return on investment the system delivers to our nation,” it read.
But Kerger and Big Bird’s millions of fans shouldn’t have been that surprised by Romney’s pledge: The candidate is merely the latest in a long line of politicians and pundits who’ve turned the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which distributes money to both PBS and NPR, into a political punching bag.
Since at least the mid-1990s, government subsidies to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting have been a perennial front in the culture wars, and PBS’ programming, from “Teletubbies” to “NewsHour,” has been criticized for its supposed liberal bias.
Here’s a brief, though by no means comprehensive, look back at the ongoing political fight over PBS.
1995: Newly anointed House Speaker Newt Gingrich makes defunding the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which he describes during a news conference as a “little sandbox for the rich,” a main legislative goal. The effort dies.
1999: Jerry Falwell, co-founder of the Moral Majority, denounces Tinky Winky, a character from “Teletubbies,” as a gay menace.
“He is purple — the gay pride color; and his antenna is shaped like a triangle — the gay pride symbol,” Falwell writes in a “Parents Alert” column in his magazine, the National Liberty Journal. Ratings for the show surge.
2002-2004: “Now” host Bill Moyers slams the GOP during on-air commentary shortly after the 2002 midterm elections. After backlash from outlets such as Fox News and the Wall Street Journal, Corporation for Public Broadcasting Chairman Ken Tomlinson pushes PBS to include more conservative voices. He adds “Journal Editorial Report” and “Tucker Carlson: Unfiltered” to the network’s lineup.
2005: Tomlinson names Patricia Harrison, a former co-chair of the Republican Party, chief executive of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
Tomlinson is eventually ousted from his job and an inquiry finds that he violated federal law by meddling with programming at PBS.
2011: In March, the GOP-dominated House approves a bill to cut all financing for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the first time such a drastic measure passed a vote. It later stalled in the Senate.
In August, gay marriage advocates started an online petition urging longtime roommates Bert and Ernie to make it official, prompting Sesame Workshop to clarify their relationship via a statement on Facebook: “Even though they are identified as male characters and possess many human traits and characteristics ... they remain puppets, and do not have a sexual orientation.”
2012: Big Bird unwittingly becomes a player in the presidential election