WASHINGTON — Big Bird took a star turn Thursday on the national stage with his usual goofy charm, tweeting about becoming an issue in the first presidential debate:
“Did I miss anything?” after going to bed early.
Republican nominee Mitt Romney triggered a social media firestorm at his initial face-off Wednesday night with President Barack Obama.
Talking about federal spending and budget cuts, Romney told moderator Jim Lehrer, himself a longtime journalist at the Public Broadcasting Service, Big Bird’s network:
“I’m sorry, Jim. I’m going to stop the subsidy to PBS. . . . I like PBS. I like Big Bird. I actually like you, too.”
Within minutes, Twitter accounts popped up with viewers having fun with the seeming threat to the beloved yellow bird and his fellow “Sesame Street” dwellers.
“Somewhere Paul Ryan is turning over trash cans in hopes of smoking out Oscar the Grouch,” said one tweet at #firedBigBird, referring to Romney’s running mate.
President Barack Obama didn’t respond during the debate to Romney’s promise to cut the budget with a whack at PBS, but he jumped in Thursday, telling a Denver crowd, “We didn’t know that Big Bird was driving the federal deficit.”
PBS has often been a target for Republican lawmakers, who object to its federal subsidy. Romney renewed a complaint among many Republicans in Congress that the federal government shouldn’t be subsidizing the arts.
The amount at issue – $444 million for the current fiscal year – is distributed to 350 member stations through the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. GOP members of the House of Representatives included a phase-out of all funding by 2015 in an appropriations bill that lawmakers are expected to vote on during the post-election lame-duck session.
In a statement to the news media that also was posted on its website, PBS said it was “very disappointed” at being a political target.
“Gov. Romney does not understand the value the American people place on public broadcasting and the outstanding return on investment the system delivers to our nation,” PBS said. “The federal investment in public broadcasting equals about one one-hundredth of 1 percent of the federal budget.”
PBS and its supporters said eliminating the subsidy wouldn’t help the federal debt but the effect on the public “would be devastating.”
The Sesame Workshop, the nonprofit organization that produces the long-running children’s program, agreed, even though it wouldn’t feel the impact directly.
“We absolutely would not want that to happen,” Sherrie Westin, Sesame Workshop’s executive vice president, said in an interview. “ ‘Sesame Street’ has been a proud partner of PBS, and we are dependent on its distribution system to reach children.”
Westin recognized that “Sesame Street” has become an “iconic symbol of the debate” over federal spending although it’s a separate entity apart from PBS and doesn’t receive any federal dollars.
But Big Bird, who, yes, has his own Twitter account on @sesamestreet – “all our characters do,” Westin said – would “not be on the campaign trail.”
Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @maria_e_recio