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Defending Sesame Street

The Republicans Are Out of Touch With American Life

By David J. Andorsky

Big Bird's head is on the chopping block. No, this is not some twisted version of Thanksgiving Dinner.

Instead, the House Appropriations held hearings last Thursday on the future of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), the federally funded institution that brings us not only Sesame Street and Mister Rogers, but National Public Radio and other cultural and educational programs.

If you listen to the Republicans talk about it, the possible eradication of CPB is not an attack on Bert and Ernie but rather an assault on a liberal propaganda machine that has no right to receive federal funding.

In the days following the November election, Newt Gingrich and his colleagues were already gearing up for the destruction of the "liberal sandbox."

The hearings, however, have not given rise to such ideological rhetoric. The members of Congress who favor eliminating funding present the proposed cuts as a purely budgetary matter. Said U.S. Representative Dana Roarbacher (R-Ca.), "If we are serious about reducing the dangerously high level of deficit spending, we must have the courage to cut from the federal budget anything that is not absolutely necessary for the government to do."

Gingrich made a similar statement during his daily press conference, saying that the cuts were being considered because "everything must be on the table except Social Security" in order to balance the federal budget.

It would be naive to suppose that the Republicans have changed their motivations for cutting CPB's funding overnight. The budget issue is being used as a screen to hide their ideological aims.

Anyone who argues against these cuts will seem to oppose eliminating the budget deficit or to not have the "courage" to get tough and make the choices that must be made. By placing the CPB subsidy at the top of the Appropriations Committee's agenda, the Republicans can use the momenturn from the Congressional election to put the Democrats on the defensive.

It's a savvy political maneuver, but it shouldn't fool anyone. If the considerations were primarily financial, CPB would not be such a priority. Its budget is minuscule--only $319 million a year--compared to other "wasteful" federal agencies that sop up far more government dollars.

Even though Committee Chair John Porter (R-Ill.) was "rather amazed" at all of the attention that the CPB hearings drew, he was fully aware of CPB's symbolic significance for both parties. If he were serious about cutting the budget, he would not have wasted his party's energy on such a fiscally insignificant battle.

In an attempt to hide from the consequences of their attack on CPB, Republicans predict that CPB's most popular programs will be bought up by the networks and will flourish in the private sector.

In the private sector, however, Sesame Street and Mr. Rogers will have to contend with the same market pressures that induce the networks to offer sleazy talk shows and sappy soap operas that comprise the current day-time fare.

The same applies to adult programs offered by CPB--particularly news. With one or two exceptions, all network news programs consist of five-second sound bites and bland, superficial reporting. Neither the television nor the radio markets have given rise to high-quality news, and it is doubtful that the CPB shows will be able to survive for long if they have to compete with tasteless but popular trash such as A Current Affair or Hard Copy.

The fact is, cutting CPB's funding may mean the end of its far superior programming.

Opponents of CPB also argue that is inefficient. Reed Irvine of the conservative watchdog group Accuracy in Media testified that CPB's news budget is almost four times as large as CNN's.

He may have a point; federally run operations do tend to be much less efficient than their counterparts in the private sector. But if efficiency is the problem, the solution is not to kill CPB but to try to make it more efficient. The Republican over-eagerness to eliminate funding betrays their ideological motives.

And these motives did make an appearance during the hearings. Robert Knight of the Family Research Council blasted CPB for being "at war with the family for over two decades," citing the absence of two-parent families on Sesame Street as evidence.

He also said, "If you really cared about children's education, you would try to find ways of preserving family time," instead of using the television as a babysitter. Maybe Sesame Street can be used as a babysitter, but I would much rather have Cookie Monster looking after my kids than Geraldo.

And Jim Warner of the National Rifle Association (NRA) complained that CPB did not adequately represent NRA views in their programming. Perhaps he would feel better if the producers gave Mister Rogers an AK-47 and a show on household security.

Other witnesses argued that CPB is elitist, taking money away from all Americans and providing entertainment for a few upper class liberals. CPB's subsidy was portrayed as some sort of regressive tax, an example of the liberal tyranny over honest, hard-working Americans. But canceling CPB's funding is not a victory for the average American; it is a blow to those who need the resources most.

While a large segment of public broadcasting's audience is educated and affluent, lower income individuals make extensive use of it as well. CPB President Richard Carstone testified that 76 percent of his listeners do not have a college degree. And CPB's programs are particularly important for these poorer families, where educational opportunities are already bleak.

During the hearings, the Republican members of Congress demonstrated their utter lack of understanding of social conditions in our country. Many argued that CPB was redundant, that quality news and educational programs can be found elsewhere on CNN, C-SPAN, Nickelodian, and the Discovery Channel.

What they don't seem to grasp is that all of these services are offered on cable, a service to which 40 percent of American households do not subscribe. Many of them cannot afford it.

Such a possibility did not even occur to the Republicans, indicating how out of touch they are with the reality of American life. This is a step beyond their usual foolishness regarding social issues. In the debate over welfare, the poor don't count as constituents. During the CPB hearings, they didn't even exist.

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