Killing Big Bird?

Trump moves to defund public broadcasting

By Sarah Sidlow

Thing to know: President Donald Trump used to be a Muppet. Before he was the commander in chief; before he was the leader of the free world; he was a garbage-throwing puppet who lived in a multi-story trashcan empire called “Grump Tower” in the 1980s.

This is relevant not only because some of you may find it generally entertaining, but also because it illustrates the history of Donald Trump’s relationship with public broadcasting. Last week, Trump made public his divorce from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (which funds several public radio and television stations including National Public Radio and the Public Broadcasting Service—former home of Sesame Street) in his budget blueprint.

The section of note is on page 11. Titled “major agency budget highlights,” the summary lists the Corporation for Public Broadcasting as among the independent agencies that will be defunded under the administration’s budget proposal. The National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities also make the highlight reel.

So, what kind of spending are we talking about anyway? In 2014, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting spent $74.63 million on television programming grants, which go to broadcasts like Frontline and PBS Newshour. Half of its $445 million federal appropriation went to local public television stations, and $15.6 million went to local public radio stations.

But for people who grew up on the Streets of Sesame or in Mr. Rogers’ hood, this budget proposal hurts right in the childhood. House representatives Dave Reichert (R-Washington) and Earl Blumenauer (D-Oregon) are circulating a letter asking for the programs’ continued funding. Because other than coming up with things like “Grump Tower,” public broadcasting represents a source of free, high quality, local programming to families—particularly in rural areas—who may not have access to anything else. In short, it’s one small way to even the playing field of information.

Others argue that cutting programs like these aren’t the best way to balance a budget. The reality is that the federal subsidy to public media operators totals an estimated $1.39 per American. Given our current deficit, this one cut is hardly enough to make a dent.

Yet, the agencies in question have long been targeted as an example of unnecessary government spending. “I put myself in the shoes of that steelworker in Ohio, the coal-mining family in West Virginia, the mother of two in Detroit, and I’m saying, OK, I have to go ask these folks for money and I have to tell them where I’m going to spend it,” OMB Director Mick Mulvaney said recently.

Others argue in favor of defunding the Corporation for Public Broadcasting not because they disagree with its content or mission, but because it is so popular, it would easily be able to survive on its own. (NPR and PBS stations are already 84 percent free of taxpayer support.)

For the record, since Sesame Street moved to HBO in 2015, no Big Birds were actually harmed in the making of this budget proposal.

Reach Dayton City Paper forum moderator Sarah Sidlow at


Debate Forum Question of the Day

Should the Corporation for Public Broadcasting be defunded?



Frontline of the media war

Fighting for an educated citizenry

By Ben Tomkins

In the Forum Center, Sarah Sidlow wrote that then-candidate Donald Trump was a “garbage-throwing puppet,” but where she made her mistake was implying this is still not the case now that he’s in the White House. His vain and vitriolic tweets are nothing more than dusty felt and mangy hair, haphazardly stitched around a collection of policy platforms so cluttered and incomprehensible that watching the administration operate is very much like straining to see a breast through the static of a scrambled pornographic TV channel. While it may not be a human hand, he certainly has something up his ass, and when it comes to budget issues it seems that the Corporation for Public Broadcasting is it.

The CPB has had a target on it ever since conservatives realized that television programs designed to make people more informed and educated don’t mesh well with their policy platform. In fact, precision of word and mind, in general, doesn’t seems to be a good idea, and had Trump spent a good deal more time learning to read and spell growing up he may have done a little better with the concept of “fake news” and stopped spelling “ridiculous” as “diculous.” I do have to give him some credit for creating a word that has some residual value, though. It was “diculous” to try to defund the CPB during the Bush years, and it’s “diculous” again now that Trump and his party are trying to do it.

The argument they have made against CPB is two-fold. First, they say that the government should not be supporting any kind of arts or media, and we have bigger priorities out there anyway. This is absurd. Developing an educated citizenry is absolutely a priority of the federal government—albeit, perhaps not this particular administration—and a strong sponsorship for educational programming on publically available television networks is a fantastic way of reaching people in rural, poor, and otherwise informationally impoverished areas. Also, much like the federal mail or interstate system, strong local stations play an extremely important role in communicating effectively and efficiently. It could be easily said that strong local television stations are a component of national security, and we are weakening America by cutting the CPB.

It is not only sad but also ironic that President Trump would want to cut nearly $500 million in support of local television and radio stations. This is the president who opened up the White House press briefings to a number of smaller media organizations, added Skype seats, and occasionally takes questions from those very same local stations he’s trying to cut funding for. As Sean Spicer put it, “This will open up the briefing to journalists who live beyond 50 miles of the Washington, DC area and to organizations that don’t currently have a day pass. As always, any organization is welcome to apply for a day pass. But we’re excited to open up into the field and fold here a diverse group of journalists from around the country who may not have the convenience or funding to travel to Washington. I think this can benefit us all by giving a platform to voices that are not necessarily based here in the beltway.”

The other argument against CPB is that it takes money away from larger government priorities. As Sidlow pointed out, Mick Mulvaney, White House Budget director, has  weighed-in with, “I put myself in the shoes of that steelworker in Ohio, the coal-mining family in West Virginia, the mother of two in Detroit, and I’m saying, OK, I have to go ask these folks for money, and I have to tell them where I’m going to spend it.”

This is a painfully false dichotomy. By that logic, any time the government spends a penny on anything, they may as well be taking bread out of the mouths of its citizens. For context, if you cut the entirety of the CPB, you could buy four F-35 Lightning IIs, and have a little cash left over to fly them a few times if you promised not to shoot or bomb anything. Of course, the assumption would be that the federal government would, if they cut funding for the CPB, reinvest that in jobs or health care for those coalminers in West Virginia, but that isn’t the plan. The goal of the administration is to cut funding and shrink the government. In the big picture, those poor blue-collar workers would be paying a few cents less in tax every year, if they are indeed paying any taxes at all, and dealing with an underfunded local television station. Maybe if Mick Mulvaney tried explaining it that way it would be an easy sell.

Ben Tomkins is a violinist, teacher, journalist, and critically acclaimed composer currently living in Denver, Colorado. He hates stupidity and generally believes that the volume of one’s voice is inversely proportional to one’s knowledge of an issue. For more of his work, visit Reach him at



Big bird, big business

PBS gets more than enough funding to take care of all Muppets

By Don Hurst

The government should not fund the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Don’t get me wrong. I love the programming. Sure, Ira Glass and Terry Gross lean a little left for my taste, but I enjoy hearing alternative views. I also enjoy Discovery Channel’s Shark Week, but I don’t believe other people need to pay to help me watch my shows. It’s not the government’s responsibility to entertain the masses. As for the educational programming, education is already handled through taxpayer expense six hours a day at publicly funded schools.

CPB funding makes up a small amount of the federal budget. It comes out to less than a $1.40 per taxpayer. Cutting the funding won’t singlehandedly solve our budgetary woes. Still, the price tag is around $450 million. We’re deluding ourselves if we just shrug off almost half a billion dollars as inconsequential. Eliminating these small pockets of spare change adds to dramatic cuts. The fact that we consider $450 million to be an inconsequential sum proves that our budget is out of control and we need to make cuts.

The Public Broadcasting System (PBS) and National Public Radio (NPR) are healthy enough not to need the crutch of public funds. The government only covers about 15 percent of the CPB’s expenses. Public media executives love to threaten that without federal support children’s educational programming is at risk, and poor, rural people won’t be able to watch TV. If a 15 percent cut in revenue is enough to sink PBS and NPR, then they are grossly mismanaged enterprises that deserve to fade away.

Whenever there is talk about defunding the CPB, opponents bring up Sesame Street. The Daily Beast has a lovely picture of a decapitated Big Bird. How can we potty train toddlers without Elmo singing about the toilet? How could people be so heartless as to deny our children the pleasure of watching Ernie sing to his rubber ducky? Oh the humanity!

Big Bird is a big bird and he can take care of himself. In 2010 (while still with PBS) Sesame Street earned $45 million for merchandising alone, which was one-third of its revenue. That year Sesame Street’s expenses were $131 million for 26 episodes with a production budget of about $16 million. Each episode cost a little over half a million dollars, compared to $3 million an episode of the Walking Dead.

Last year, Sesame Workshop earned over $100 million in revenues. It’s difficult to argue that taxpayers need to support an enterprise that does so well for itself. If the show can’t remain above water putting up those numbers, then it needs to seriously reexamine how it does business.

Dramas like Downton Abbey and Sherlock employ top tier actors like Dame Judy Dench and Benedict Cumberbatch. While the BBC has not disclosed their salaries, news outlets reported that Dench’s salary doubled in the fourth season to keep her from running to Hollywood, and Cumberbatch is one of the top paid actors for the BBC. Acquiring the rights for these shows can’t be cheap for PBS.

Downton Abbey and Sherlock are quality shows, but how much educational value do they have? Very little. Supporters for PBS are correct that you can’t find comparable educational programming on broadcast television. When my son was younger, we watched the hell out of The Wild Kratts, Curious George, and the Cat in the Hat. No other channel could beat the kid’s programming. That’s why I gladly sent the check in when they asked for donations. But Sherlock and Downton Abbey? I don’t need PBS to find quality adult dramas. Free, privately funded broadcast television meets that need. If CPB is fretting about how to make up the 15 percent shortfall, then they can look at entertainment programming. Cut out the nonessentials and there will be plenty of money to insure that all of our children can still access quality educational shows.

Relying on taxpayer money actually weakens CPB programming. If NPR and PBS have to rely on private donors, then they will have to ensure their shows are relevant to the audience. Removing government funding forces CPB to operate efficiently and provide shows that engage the audience. Every program won’t reach the same popularity as Sesame Street or Downton Abbey, but if viewers value what they see, then they will donate. If the audience doesn’t care about keeping the shows alive, then why should the taxpayer care?

PBS and NPR are worthy organizations. They deserve our support as private individuals. The networks bring in enough from donors and licensing not to need government support. The 15 percent funding cut may create some discomfort for the CPB while it adapts, but it can survive the reduction.


Don Hurst is a combat vet and a former police officer. He now lives in Dayton where he writes novels and plays. Reach DCP freelance writer DonHurst at

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Sarah Sidlow
Reach DCP editor Sarah Sidlow at

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