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Battle of 'Sesame Street': Political fight over PBS has long history

October 6th, 2012 5:09 am by Meredith Blake,Los Angeles Times (MCT)

NEW YORK — 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” out of shock.

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 sudsidization of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting has 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. After protests from the likes of children’s TV show host Shari Lewis, the effort dies.

1999: Jerry Falwell, co-founder of the Moral Majority, denounces Tinky Winky, a character from the trippy PBS children’s program “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. He also notes that Tinky Winky accessorizes with a purse.

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 Friday-night lineup.

2005: Tomlinson names Patricia Harrison, a former co-chair of the Republican Party, chief executive of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, prompting an outcry from liberals. Tomlinson is eventually ousted from his job at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and an inquiry finds that he violated federal law by meddling with the programming at PBS.

2009: Conservative bloggers put up a stink over a “Sesame Street” short in which an irate female grouch calls in to the Grouch News Network (aka GNN) and vows: “From now on I am watching Pox News. Now there’s a trashy news show!”

PBS ombudsman Michael Getler responds to the controversy saying that “Sesame Street” producers should have left the joke on the cutting room floor. But Sesame Workshop executive Miranda Barry defends the sketch as an “equal-opportunity parody,” arguing that “Oscar always tries to offend everybody!”

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 May, columnist Ben Shapiro publishes a book called “Primetime Propaganda” in which he alleges that “Sesame Street” is designed to indoctrinate children in leftist ideology. By way of example, he cites lessons in peaceful conflict resolution in the aftermath of 9/11 and an appearance by openly gay actor Neil Patrick Harris as a “fairy shoeperson.” He also complains that “Sesame Street” encourages parents to give their children gender-neutral toys.

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.”

In October, “Sesame Street” introduces a character named Lily, designed to teach children about poverty and hunger, and earns derision from right-wing pundits.

2012: Big Bird unwittingly becomes a player in the presidential election — and a social media cause célèbre.

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©2012 Los Angeles Times

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