The Battle for Big Bird

I want to talk about public broadcasting for a moment. My desire to address this topic arises from the hullabaloo stemming from a comment during the recent presidential debate. In short, candidate Romney made plain his intention to eliminate the PBS subsidy as part of a broader plan to cut wasteful expenditure. His comment was cavalier and the reasoning was questionable. Given the state of political discourse, I wouldn’t expect much more, but this was a bit much even for me.

Let’s start with a basic proposition: public education is not an extravagance.

At some point, humanity managed to organize itself enough to form stable institutions of governance. Early on, one could ask very little from these institutions – protection and dispute resolution (laws) just about did it. As we approached the modern age, progress introduced a broader social contract between citizen and government. Things like clean water, roads, and sanitation became expectations.

Yet humanity did not stop there. The social contract received addenda: retirement assistance, basic health care, and education were added into the mix. The scope and propriety of these newer additions are the subject of substantial debate. I often think that’s the case because these new articles to the contract are not required for survival, just civilization. Intellectually, it is very hard to deny a person life; fewer agree that each person has a right to thrive.

To Educate or Entertain

And so we arrive back at PBS. Public broadcasting has a very clear priority: educate the masses. If people are entertained along the way, that’s an added benefit. No other purveyor of content on television or radio shares this prioritization. For each, the goal is to entertain, and if people happen to be educated along the way, that’s an added benefit so long as it creates shareholder value. Now, before everyone gets all huffy about that statement, you can ask yourself this: If PBS and “mainstream” content providers shared the same prioritization, why do they present information in entirely different manners?

Take Chris Matthews losing his mind over the recent debate moderated by Jim Lehrer. Mr. Matthews objects strenuously to how the debate was handled:

At the center of his discontent was Jim Lehrer’s refusal to directly confront Mr. Romney on various statements Mr. Matthews felt were inaccurate. Mr. Matthews felt he would handle the debate differently. He would. Mr. Matthews would make the debate about him, not the candidates. A moderator’s role in a debate is to facilitate the orderly progression of conversation, not engage in a targeted attacks for gotcha moments. The latter is reserved for entertainers seeking a soundbyte.

Mr. Romney might have gotten away with bloody murder on that stage, but it was President Obama’s obligation to call him on that fact. Not the moderator. The injection of the moderator into the substance of a debate is inappropriate and exemplifies the entertainment over education mindset in existence outside of PBS content. I’ll freely admit the debate sucked, but I blame the men in charge of substance for that fact.

Additionally, I think we can clearly see the education over entertainment priority when the production values of PBS are considered. Charlie Rose sits in a black room talking to interesting people for an extended period. Black. Room. No holograms. No multi-touch screens with all the cool new tech. No three minute micro-segments with 8 people yelling at eachother. Just long discourse about issues of substance. Is it boring? Often. But they’re focused on education, not entertainment. Their mission is to provide us with an option for depth. We can choose to swim in the deep with them or not. The option of The Jersey Shore will always be available to us, because it is cheap to produce and entertaining. If PBS disappears, so to does depth.

Tolerance of Viewpoint

Another hallmark of public broadcasting is a willingness to engage and consider multiple viewpoints. Are some of the interviewers/reporters/hosts a bit liberal? Yes. Do they wear their preferences on their sleeve at times? Also yes. Does that mean they are ineffective in drawing out an interesting discussion to consider these differences in views? Decidedly not.

I have heard any number of PBS shows where the host clearly disagrees with the guest, but that disagreement is used to foster conversation, not cow the person into submission. Can you imagine this interchange occuring on PBS?

Of course not. Why? Because you aren’t learning anything watching that. You’re seeing two grown men behave poorly for the benefit of public spectacle. Sure, I wish there were more conservative employees at PBS, but I also recognize that the employees of PBS aren’t afraid to meaningfully engage with those they disagree with.

A Final Thought

I think what disturbs me the most about Mr. Romney’s statement is that it’s cheap pandering. Here’s the part where he addresses the subject for those who missed it:

Mr. Romney does not support PBS because opposing PBS scores points with his base. Some of the most reprehensible policies ever foisted upon the American public arise from pandering to the base. The “base” of each party are those sufficiently emotional enough about an issue to act. These people cast aside rational apathy in favor of zealotry, and since they’re the only ones active in politics, their minority views carry enormous weight.

Don’t believe it’s pandering? All right, let’s break it down. The subsidy for PBS is ~$450 million dollars. Sounds like a lot until you consider the fact that we’re running a trillion dollar deficit. You do not stop a debt inferno by unzipping and taking a whiz. You stop it by raising taxes AND cutting benefits (yes, both). Mr. Romney knows that, but it’s politically expensive to admit. So he takes a shot at something the base hates and couches it in a reasonable desire to tidy up America’s accounts.

Further evidence pandering may be found in the reference to China. What does China have to do with anything? It’s a red herring. We borrow from China because we have structured in long-term deficits by making terrible decisions on both sides of the aisle for the better part of two decades (Republicans: Tax cuts, foreign wars, deregulation. Democrats: Failing to raise taxes, refusing to restructure entitlements). PBS is a non-factor in this equation. However, taking something the base dislikes (PBS) and tieing it to something it fears/dislikes (China) is a very convenient way to build currency with the people that need to vote for someone they don’t particularly care for.

What does it all mean? It looks like Mr. Romney would  sacrifice the one reliable source of deep educational content available to us on television and radio so he can get the folks wearing elephants to forget he supported abortion rights and universal healthcare. I don’t blame him, his incentives are clear, but it’s a terrible position to take. It degrades our civilization and therefore our value as a people.

I’m going to leave you with Fred Rogers’s (Mr. Rogers) testimony before Congress in defense of the Federal subsidy for PBS. If you can listen to that testimony and credibly argue that PBS doesn’t serve a critical role in public education, I’d be very interested to hear your thoughts.

JM: There are times in which I’m annoyed by Shawn, and feel like rolling my eyes at his sanctimonious skinny ass. And there are times in which I flat out love him dearly and lament the physical distance between us. Right now, I’m feeling the latter.

In case I’m being unclear, I agree. And then some. My hypothetical income tax slider is hard set to maximum for education. PBS’s funding should be increased exponentially, not cut. Education should be our priority, not improving our nation’s ability to kill people in other nations. Education is our civilization’s highest calling, the best thing we can do for our children. And as our Founding Fathers knew all too well, it’s the baseline assumption of a functioning democracy.

4 thoughts on “The Battle for Big Bird

  1. Let’s not forget, Romney wants to increase our already incredible military budget (one that exceeds the military budgets of the next three highest spending countries combined) by billions of dollars. And little PBS only gets a few hundred million. Our priorities are way out of sync with the realities of our world, where our biggest military threat is the chance that our military gets so big that we bankrupt ourselves fighting nobody.

  2. I wish I could say I had some compelling conviction toward one candidate over the other now. I’ve spent a lot of time looking at Romney’s policy positions over the last few months, and I have a very hard time understanding what he is proposing to do. Choosing Ryan defined some of his preferences, but I pretty fundamentally disagree with Ryan’s budget and perspective.

    I’d give anything to have someone who is willing to stop being an idealogue and actually be pragmatic about our problems. I don’t think either of the candidates are the right choice, but Obama sits better with me at this point. It’s a pretty depressing state of affairs.

  3. Romney’s suggestion to cut PBS’s budget is pandering as much as Obama’s plan to raise taxes on the wealthy, which would also only amount to a tiny impact on the budget.

    I’m not saying one act of pandering deserves another or equals another.

    The magnitude of impact of implementing a policy is just one factor to consider when deciding whether or not to actually do it. If your ideology is such that some government services should be reduced or rich people should pay more taxes, that the impact of taking a single step would not solve all the problems is not in itself a reason to abandon the action.

    Jamil, our Founding Fathers did not leave us with a Constitutional framework for the nation’s education. Maybe they forgot?

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