When Romney humorlessly announced last night he planned to cut funding to PBS, though he liked Big Bird, he revealed more than he intended. Namely, his dismissal displayed a brazen ignorance about a show that has been tremendously beneficial, pedagogically, to generations of children, especially those from low-income households, and, more deeply, an ignorance about the day-to-day lives of working, poor Americans. In fact, a famous study conducted by the Educational Testing Service, and reviewed by many education experts, found that:
…children from low-income households who were regular viewers scored higher than children from higher-income households who watched the show less frequently. Similar results were found in children from non-English-speaking homes.
What Romney thought was a casual remark was actually a window into his political and social psychology. Suzi Parker at the Washington Post thinks it will haunt him:
A collective stab pierced the heart of Generation X who grew up with Big Bird, Bert and Ernie and Oscar the Grouch as their best friends. I immediately thought, “Oh no, Big Bird will be unemployed if Romney wins.” I wasn’t alone.
PBS CEO Paula Kerger also issued a biting response:
We are very disappointed that PBS became a political target in the Presidential debate last night. 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. We think it is important to set the record straight and let the facts speak for themselves. The federal investment in public broadcasting equals about one one-hundredth of one 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.
Mary Elizabeth Williams delves into it further:
What Romney, in his adorably out-of-touch way, failed to grasp with that statement is that practically every American under the age of 50 has a powerful childhood association with that goofy oversize lug. An entire generation can trace its first understanding of death to the moment that Big Bird let it sink in that “Mr. Hooper’s not coming back.” And another generation learned about loss and community and resilience after 9/11 when “Sesame Street” had Big Bird’s own nest destroyed in a storm. (The show aired Big Bird’s odyssey again after Katrina.) And I defy even a robotic millionaire to get through Big Bird’s choked up rendition of “It’s Not Easy Being Green” at Jim Henson’s memorial service and not completely lose it when he says, “Thank you, Kermit.”