By CARL SMITH
Since Mitt Romney’s Oct. 3 comments during the first presidential debate in Colorado, both Democrats and Republicans have discussed PBS and Big Bird more than they probably expected in this election cycle.
While outlining ways he would cut federal spending, Rommey told debate moderator and executive editor of “PBS NewsHour” Jim Lehrer he would end the subsidy if elected to PBS, adding “I like PBS, I love Big Bird.”
President Barack Obama’s campaign then issued a new TV ad Tuesday featuring the “Sesame Street” character and attacking Romney’s stance on public broadcasting funding. The group behind the television show disavowed the spot, and Romney dismissed it as dodging the real issues behind this election.
Despite Romney drawing a target on PBS, Mississippi’s U.S. Congressional candidates agree his comments allude to the direction the nation is heading: The federal government must make tough funding decisions in order to combat ever-increasing national spending.
However, Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Albert N. Gore Jr., who is running against Republican Sen. Roger Wicker, says Romney’s stance on PBS funding would undercut early childhood education, an issue important to all Mississippians because of the state’s lack of Pre-K educational systems.
A day after Romney’s statement, PBS issued a release saying he does not understand the value of public broadcasting and the return it provides to the nation. As cited in the release, a Harris Interactive poll stated that Americans, for the ninth year in a row, consider PBS the most trusted public institution and the second most valuable use of public funds behind only national defense.
“The federal investment in public broadcasting equals about one one-hundredth of 1 percent of the federal budget. Elimination of funding would have virtually no impact on the nation’s debt. Yet the loss to the American public would be devastating. A national survey by the bipartisan research firms of Hart Research and American Viewpoint in 2011 found that over two-thirds of American voters (69 percent) oppose proposals to eliminate government funding of public broadcasting, with Americans across the political spectrum against such a cut. As a stated supporter of education, Gov. Romney should be a champion of public broadcasting, yet he is willing to wipe out services that reach the vast majority of Americans, including underserved audiences, such as children who cannot attend preschool and citizens living in rural areas,” the statement read. “Over the course of a year, 91percent of all U.S. television households tune in to their local PBS station. In fact, our service is watched by 81 percent of all children between the ages of 2-8. Each day, the American public receives an enduring and daily return on investment that is heard, seen, read and experienced in public media broadcasts, apps, podcasts and online — all for the cost of about $1.35 per person per year.”
Wicker and U.S. Reps. Alan Nunnelee and Gregg Harper all said federal subsidies must be analyzed since the U.S. government currently borrows 42 cents of every dollar spent.
“Tough choices are required to put us back on a fiscally responsible path,” Wicker said in a release Thursday. “We must address the real drivers of the spending — especially health care — but we need to look at every program. Federal funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting is one item where we can find savings.”
Gore, the former chairman of the Oktibbeha County Democratic Party, said public broadcasting provides children with a window to a world they might not experience normally. Federal funding, he said, is crucial for PBS.
“Romney has lost his mind if he ever had one. Public broadcasting is the best thing that’s ever happened because it helps further the educational base,” he said. “Someone reared in the county schools of Oktibbeha County, sometimes it’s hard for them to see outside of Starkville and Oktibbeha County. (Public broadcasting) gives them an opening to a world they can strive to reach. It’s also important because most of their news broadcasts are neutral and do not favor one side or the other.”
Public broadcasting’s relevance has diminished in the age of technology, Harper said, which therefore makes it an acceptable target for potential cuts. Also, he said he believes PBS is viable financially and can stand on its own without federal subsidies.
The Associated Press was unable to reach Harper’s Nov. 6 opponent, Reform Party candidate John “Luke” Pannell earlier this week, and contact information was not available at press time.
“The (reasons for PBS’ founding) really isn’t there now. Most everyone now has access to home computers. If not, there are public libraries where they are available,” Harper said. I believe they are commercially viable and can continue to work. If I’m not mistaken, PBS got about $1 million in stimulus money that led to one and a half jobs and they’re getting about $450 million from taxpayers. We cannot continue to support these programs with taxpayer dollars when they can stand on their own two feet.”
When the Obama campaign introduced its attack ad featuring Big Bird, it showed the president is running on little substance, Harper said.
“The surprising thing to me is that the president is now running on Big Bird, and you know why — he cannot run on his record. You can go back to his 2008 acceptance speech. There was a line about if you don’t have a record to run on, you make an election about small things,” Harper said. “His policies have hurt our country. Instead of focusing on jobs and economy, he is focusing on Big Bird and Elmo.”
Nunnelee echoed Harper’s sentiments on spending, saying the federal government “cannot continue to keep doing what got it in trouble.” The 1st District representatives faces opposition from four opponents, including Democrat Brad Morris. A phone call to Morris was not returned as of press time.
“The issue is for the longest, we in government, have asked how we can do things more efficiently and better. In this current environment, we need to ask ourselves does government need to be doing these programs at all,” Nunnelee said. “I know the Mississippi Legislature itself is making very difficult spending decisions because, quite frankly, there isn’t enough room for everything. Americans have bought millions of Tickle Me Elmo and Big Bird dolls, but those were produced by private corporations from characters that exist out of subsidies provided by U.S. taxpayers.”
Despite calls to ax federal subsidies, Mississippi Public Broadcasting Executive Director Ronnie Agnew says public broadcasting will have a long future nationally and in the state. When calculated to a per-month cost, he said, each American taxpayer contributes about 11 cents a month to public broadcasting.
“We feel great with the outpouring of support public broadcasting has received since the debate,” Agnew said. “A lot of people see the Big Bird comment, but in Mississippi we’re known as an everyman’s world.”
Although MPB provides an important avenue of early education to Mississippi youth — including reading curriculum partnerships that impact about 10,000 children, Agnew said — the network also ties in content from all walks of life.
“Our TV programing is tied to other state issues: ‘Job Hunter’ shows (hopeful employees) the skills they need; ‘Mississippi Roads’ with Walt Grayson shows off our beautiful state and its stories; ‘Southern Remedy’ puts a spotlight on Southern health issues,” he said. “People here see (public broadcasting) as a value to Mississippi, not a drain on the state budget.”
No matter voters’ party affiliations, Marty Wiseman, the director of Mississippi State University’s Stennis Institute of Government, says Mississippians need to understand Romney’s and Obama’s philosophical differences on government funding and how the state already is mostly dependent on federal dollars. Since so much federal funding trickles back into Mississippi, hard decisions at the national level could become hard decisions at the state level, he said.
“We’re always battling for the biggest net-gaining state (in terms of federal funding). For every dollar we send to Washington, we get back two or three. Every time Mitt Romney says he’s going to cancel a government program and turn it back to the state, that adds additional cost back to the state. Then, the state throws its hands up and says we can’t fund anything,” Wiseman said. “Folks don’t understand we’re not talking just welfare programs. We’re talking highway funds, all manners of educational funding, pell grants for college students — big stuff is on the chopping block at the federal level. It’s all going to fall to the state of Mississippi. When federal cuts are made, the state is going to have to make hard decisions.”