The clear winner from Wednesday’s presidential debate? Big Bird.
The beloved “Sesame Street” character, who’s entertained and educated generations of children since 1969, became an unexpected talking point in the first face-off between President Obama and his challenger, Mitt Romney.
About 30 minutes into the debate in Denver, Romney explained how he would cut non-essential items from the federal budget in order to trim the deficit – first and foremost, PBS.
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“I’m going to stop the subsidy to PBS. I’m going to stop other things. I love Big Bird,” he insisted to debate moderator, Jim Lehrer, who anchors the network’s “News Hour” broadcast. “I actually like you too, but I’m going to stop borrowing money from China to pay for things we don’t need.”
Alas, Lehrer’s tentative performance probably didn’t do much to strengthen the case for PBS, but Romney’s attack on Big Bird sparked an immediate uproar on social media, where liberals rallied around their feathered friend. According to Twitter, users were posting about Big Bird 17,000 times a minute in the moments following the remarks.
Actress Olivia Wilde proclaimed, “Mitt is smirky, sweaty, indignant and smug with an unsettling hint of hysteria. And he wants to kill BIG BIRD. #debate2012” and was retweeted thousands of times.
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Naturally, spoof accounts quickly followed. As of this morning, @FiredBigBird boasts 26,000 followers. (First tweet: “Somewhere Paul Ryan is kicking over trash cans in hopes of smoking out Oscar the Grouch.”)
The Big Bird meme also spread to Facebook, where supporters posted altered photos of the character holding a sign saying “Will Work for Food.”
Sesame Workshop, producers of "Sesame Street," remained neutral on the subject. "We are a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization. We do not comment on campaigns, but we're happy we can all agree everyone likes Big Bird!" they said via Twitter.
Conservatives, meanwhile, praised the Big Bird diss. Fox News contributor Dick Morris said the call made Romney seem “trustworthy” and S.E. Cupp tweeted that it “totally worked to a certain crowd.”
Vows to defund PBS – and its cousin, NPR – have been a right-wing election-year talking point for the last decade or so. Although a recent study found that PBS is the nation’s most-trusted institution (a designation it’s earned nine years straight) and that most Americans deem it an “excellent” use of tax dollars, conservatives frequently accuse the network of liberal bias.
Wednesday marked at least the second time that Romney has singled out Big Bird on the campaign trail: During a pit stop in Iowa in December, the former Massachusetts governor claimed “we’re not going to kill Big Bird,” but insisted that funding for PBS should come from advertisers, not taxpayers.
Big Bird and his fuzzy brethren have survived the frequent attacks from the right, perhaps because the funding the Corporation for Public Broadcasting receives -- $444 million, or about twice Romney’s estimated net worth – is minuscule when compared to the overall federal budget (about 0.007 percent of it, as many Twitter users were quick to point out last night). Not to mention, less than 15% of PBS’ budget comes from the federal government; the vast majority comes from private donations.
There are other, more self-serving reasons Romney and his conservative peers should think twice about cutting PBS. The network’s biggest hit at the moment is the UK import “Downton Abbey,” an upstairs-downstairs drama about a British earl and his family, created by Julian Fellowes, a conservative member of the House of Lords. It has been criticized for its rose-tinted view of the British aristocracy, and for glorifying the rigidly hierarchical Edwardian class system.