Opinion » Ted Rall

Big Bird is a 1 Percenter

Romney's silly but salient point on PBS


"I like PBS. I love Big Bird. Actually, I like you, too," Mitt Romney told Jim Lehrer in the most quoted line from the first presidential debate. "But I'm not going to keep on spending money on things to borrow money from China to pay for."

If deficit spending will be verboten under the Mittocracy, what will happen to all those out-of-work soldiers and defense contractors? Apparently I'm the only person in America who noticed that the military-industrial complex is about to go out of business.

People are instead focusing on Romney's call to cut the $445 million a year--which amounts to a paltry 1.2 percent of 1 percent of the federal budget--the federal government contributes to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Candidates and parties aren't important. Ideas are. If we want to appear credible when we criticize right-wingers, we left-of-center types have to hold ourselves to the same standards. This is a time when we have to give the devil his due.

I was unaware of the exorbitant salaries of executives and top employees of federally subsidized broadcast networks. In a 2011 op-ed for The Wall Street Journal, South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint pointed out that PBS President Paula Kerger earned more than $600,000 a year. "Kevin Klose, president emeritus of NPR ... received more than $1.2 million in compensation, according to the tax forms the nonprofit filed in 2009," wrote DeMint.

Actor Caroll Spinney, who plays Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch, was paid more than $314,000 last year.

The Center for American Progress countered: "While those numbers are not exactly chump change, it's pennies compared to the salaries of another industry the U.S. taxpayers subsidize at much higher cost--Big Oil."

Wasteful federal spending on overpaid executives is wrong, whether it's for planet-murdering energy corporations, or on a network that airs free educational TV that helps ready kids for school with basics like counting, math and even Spanish. Kill both.

Something is off-kilter when the studios of publicly funded shows are centrally located and sumptuously furnished with mahogany tables and the latest high-tech gadgetry, while those of privately owned 50,000-watt talk-radio powerhouses are situated in the slums and look like 1970s-era flophouses.

PBS only receives 15 percent of its funding from the feds. For NPR, it's 2 percent. As a former NPR exec confided, given the political heat they take over it, they might be better off cutting the strings.

Why is the government giving broadcasters money they don't need? There's a much stronger argument for propping up newspapers, which remain the original source of 95 percent of news stories. Print media is in big trouble: The newspaper industry has shrunk 43 percent since 2000. Analysts say that even that chart-filled ubiquitous denizen of hotels USA Today may fold. If the feds want to do something good for journalism they should start by subsidizing print newspapers.

But only if their editors and publishers don't get paid ridiculous salaries.