Big Bird, one of the most famous Muppets on Sesame Street, could see his original roost on PBS face cuts due to the budget proposed by President Donald Trump. | Getty
President Donald Trump overcame more than a dozen Republican opponents, Hillary Clinton, an array of scandals and daunting electoral math to land in the Oval Office. But now, he may have finally met an opponent he cannot slay: Big Bird.
The Trump administration on Thursday unveiled a budget proposal that would entirely eliminate federal funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the publicly funded radio and television entity that includes NPR, PBS and about 1,500 affiliated stations. The move would save about $485 million — about 0.0137 percent of total federal spending.
“When you start looking at places that we reduce spending, one of the questions we asked was can we really continue to ask a coal miner in West Virginia or a single mom in Detroit to pay for these programs? The answer was no,” Trump’s Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney told MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” Thursday morning. “We can ask them to pay for defense, and we will, but we can’t ask them to continue to pay for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.”
The CPB, established under President Lyndon Johnson in 1967, has long been a target for conservatives. The conservative Heritage Foundation regularly calls for its elimination in budget proposals, and Mitt Romney famously called out Big Bird in a 2012 presidential debate.
“I’m going to stop the subsidy to PBS. I’m going to stop other things. I like PBS, I love Big Bird. Actually like you, too,” Romney said to PBS anchor Jim Lehrer, who was moderating the debate. “But I’m not going to — I’m not going to keep on spending money on things to borrow money from China to pay for.”
(While Sesame Street is now in a deal with HBO, its episodes are still made available for free through PBS — an option that would conceivably be eliminated if PBS were unable to survive.)
Republicans argue that they do not want to see the demise of the stations, only the demise of taxpayer funding for them.
“The idea is that it can be privately financed,” said Paul Winfree, the White House’s director of budget policy and a Heritage Foundation alum.
The CPB was quick to defend itself Thursday, and push back against the notion that federal dollars are not necessary to preserve the station.
“There is no viable substitute for federal funding that ensures Americans have universal access to public media’s educational and informational programming and services. The elimination of federal funding to CPB would initially devastate and ultimately destroy public media’s role in early childhood education, public safety, connecting citizens to our history, and promoting civil discussions – all for Americans in both rural and urban communities,” said CPB President Patricia Harrison in a statement.
Some experts tend to agree, arguing that private financing would not be universally available. It would not be the stereotypical NPR listeners in Boston, Brooklyn and Washington who would suffer the consequences.
The “money that really makes a difference goes to areas where the public radio and TV stations cannot survive on donations,” said David Wessel, the director of the Hutchins Center on Fiscal and Monetary Policy at the non-partisan Brookings Institution.
Wealthy metropolitan areas would likely be able to continue to support their public stations, while poorer rural areas — places that lack access to quality news programming to begin with — would lose out. That could give pause to a number of Republican representatives.
The move also illuminates a problem Wessel sees with the entire budget proposal.
“This is budgeting by bumper sticker slogan. It gives the president some applause lines for his rallies: We are going to stop sending your tax money to National Public Radio. We are cutting foreign aid,” he said. “This approach obscures the facts: The U.S. government’s debt, swollen by the Great Recession, will grow to historically unprecedented levels not because of increases in annually appropriated discretionary spending, but because of rising federal spending on retirement and health programs, largely driven by the aging of our society.”
The universality of public broadcasting that supporters argue make it so crucial also make it tougher to eliminate for purely political reasons. There are many federal programs with far fewer fans — and far smaller budgets — whose elimination would be more politically palatable.
Big Bird can likely rest easy — he survived Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and both Presidents Bush. He will probably endure Trump, too.