Big Bird, Jim Lehrer have viewers atwitter during and after presidential debate

By Dru Sefton and Andrew Lapin

Public broadcasting became a trending topic during and after Wednesday night’s presidential debate, as GOP nominee Mitt Romney repeated his pledge to defund PBS and the NewsHour’s Jim Lehrer was roundly criticized for his performance as debate moderator.

Big Bird: In Romney’s bulls-eye? (Photo: Sesame Workshop)

Romney’s remark about zeroing out federal aid came just 34 minutes into the live broadcast from the University of Denver, after Lehrer posed this question to the candidates: “What are the differences between the two of you, as to how you would go about tackling the deficit problem in this country?”

Romney, the first to answer, said he would eliminate all nonessential programs —  and he specifically mentioned PBS.

“Is the program so critical it’s worth borrowing money from China to pay for it?” Romney said. “If not, I’ll get rid of it. . . . I’m sorry, Jim, I’m going to stop the subsidy to PBS. I’m going to stop other things. I like PBS, I love Big Bird. Actually like you, too. But I’m not going to — I’m not going to keep on spending money on things to borrow money from China to pay for.”

As with other points in the debate when Romney launched into long, detailed statements, Lehrer did not follow up on the remark. Many critics faulted Lehrer for letting the candidates run over their speaking time limits and for not pressing them to  elaborate on policy points.

Lehrer emerged from semi-retirement to moderate his 12th presidential debate; he had previously announced that would take the moderator’s role no more after  publication of his 2011 book Tension City, which recalled his 40 years of experience with political debates. At the time he told The Associated Press, “Enough is enough.”

But on Aug. 13, he accepted the request to moderate the first face-off between this year’s presidential candidates. “I believe an invitation from the Commission on Presidential Debates is similar to a draft notice — a civic responsibility,” he said.

Lehrer’s performance: The tweets speak

Criticism of Lehrer’s performance in refereeing the debate started on social media and spread to post-debate news analyses by various news outlets Thursday. Both Romney and Obama interrupted Lehrer when he tried to interject, garnering more time to speak. Planned time limits for the debate segments over-ran their 15-minute time allotments, and the final planned segment was dropped from the debate completely.

“I thought the format accomplished its purpose, which was to facilitate direct, extended exchanges between the candidates about issues of substance,” Lehrer said in a statement. “Part of my moderator mission was to stay out of the way of the flow and I had no problems with doing so. My only real personal frustration was discovering that 90 minutes was not enough time in that more open format to cover every issue that deserved attention.”

Lehrer (Photo: PBS NewsHour)

Proper time management of candidates’ statements is “one of the basic rules of the debates,” said Diana Carlin, head of graduate education at St. Louis University’s department of communication and founder in 1996 of the bipartisan national research project DebateWatch, from the Commission on Presidential Debates.  “I was very surprised that he wasn’t more forceful” on the issue of time management.

Lehrer has cut speakers off in the past rather than let them go over time, Carlin said, and she had “no idea” why he wasn’t more aggressive on Wednesday. Obama ended the night with four more minutes of speaking time than Romney, according to CNN. She speculated that Lehrer may have been trying to get the conversation to segue naturally into the different planned topics, as the first three segments – all focused on the economy, totaling 45 minutes – had overlapping themes.

However, Carlin praised Lehrer’s questions. “They were questions people wanted to answer, and he had some good follow-ups and he did a good job several times of really trying to nail the specifics,” she said. Lehrer’s longstanding preference to not “insert himself” into the debates was probably what stopped him from challenging Romney’s remarks about PBS, she speculated.

Lehrer did assert himself 53 minutes in, when Romney started to go overtime by saying, “let me mention the other one,” Lehrer cut him off with a curt, “Let’s not.” That exchange was the most-tweeted-about moment of the debate, at 158,690 tweets per minute (TPM), according to Twitter’s Government & Politics team, which tracked reaction on the social network from 9 to 10:30 p.m. Eastern.

Romney’s mention of Big Bird generated a total of 135,332 related TPM. By comparison, an exchange five minutes later regarding “Obamacare,” the president’s much-discussed healthcare initiative, triggered 135,356 TPM.

Pubcasting’s advocates in Washington weren’t willing to let Romney’s statement go unchallenged.

“We are very disappointed that PBS became a political target in the Presidential debate last night,” said PBS President Paula Kerger in a statement. “As a stated supporter of education, Gov. Romney should be a champion of public broadcasting, yet he is willing to wipe out services that reach the vast majority of Americans, including underserved audiences, such as children who cannot attend preschool and citizens living in rural areas.”

“The federal investment in public broadcasting represents about one-hundredth of one percent of the total federal budget,” said Patrick Butler, president of the Association of Public Television Stations. “Terminating this investment would have no effect on the federal budget deficit, but it would have a devastating effect on the essential services — in education, engaged citizenship, culture, public safety and more.”

Democrats in Congress also piled on. “The Republican effort to attack public broadcasting and force Sesame Street to take advertising betrays an appalling lack of appreciation and understanding of what public broadcasting is and represents,” said Oregon Rep. Earl Blumenauer.  “Perhaps we need Big Bird to educate Gov. Romney about the value of public broadcasting and investing in services for the American public instead of coldly shutting them down.”

“Mitt Romney says he loves Big Bird but it’s Big Oil that gets his affection,” said Massachusetts Rep. Edward Markey. “In a budgetary blow to children and parents everywhere, Mitt Romney would take an axe to PBS while shielding billions in taxpayer subsidies to big oil companies. Mitt Romney’s budget priority is to protect $40 billion in subsidies for the most profitable oil companies on the planet but put an end to Elmo’s World.”

Meanwhile, the left-leaning Super PAC American Bridge 21st Century put out a 40-second clip called “I Left My Heart in Grand Cayman,” criticizing Romney’s offshore bank accounts and ending with a hastily edited shot of Big Bird being crushed by an anvil. And the Democratic National Committee released a video titled “Mitt Romney: What A Guy,” that spliced together cuts of Romney interrupting and dismissing Lehrer.

Sesame Workshop, home to Big Bird, remained above the fray, posting a statement online that it is a “nonpartisan, nonprofit, educational organization.  We do not comment on campaigns, but we’re happy we can all agree that everyone likes Big Bird.” Later Thursday afternoon, it added to that: “Sesame Street has been a proud partner of PBS for 43 years, and is dependent on PBS to distribute our commercial-free educational programming to all children in the United States. At a time when improvements in school readiness are recognized as being much needed for a significant number of America’s preschoolers, PBS’s ability to connect Big Bird and Friends to these children is essential.  We highly value that connection. ”

Pubcasting, a favorite target of Romney

Romney’s debate comment was his latest in a barrage attacks on pubcasting funding over the past year:

  •  In a Nov. 3, 2011, USA Today op-ed, he vowed to “enact deep reductions in the subsidies” for entities including the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
  •  While campaigning on Dec. 28, ahead of Iowa’s GOP caucuses, he pledged to end subsidies to PBS.  “I’m going to say, ‘PBS is going to have to have advertisements.’ We’re not going to kill Big Bird, but Big Bird’s going to have to have advertisements, all right? And we’re going to have endowments for the arts and humanities but they’re going to be paid for by private charity, not by taxpayers — or by borrowers.”
  •  In an interview with Time magazine published on May 23, Romney said: “I like PBS. I’d like my grandkids to be able to watch PBS. But I’m not willing to borrow money from China, and make my kids have to pay the interest on that, and my grandkids, over generations, as opposed to saying to PBS, look, you’re going to have to raise more money from charitable contributions or from advertising.”
  • While talking to Fortune magazine in August, he mentioned several subsidies he would end, including endowments for the arts and humanities. “Some of these things, like those endowment efforts and PBS, I very much appreciate and like what they do in many cases, but I just think they have to strand on their own rather than receiving money borrowed from other countries, as our government does on their behalf.”
  •  And Sept. 17 in Los Angeles, Romney again mentioned his plan to cut federal subsidies for several entities, including CPB.
Questions, comments tips? sefton@current.org, lapin@current.org

  • Rand

    Congratulations for a well written article filled with factual statements about Mitt’s other comments on the issue. I wish you had included one more fact. How much of PBS revenue comes from federal subsidies? I think it is a relatively small part of their total budget. Less than 20%? Mitt and all of us want PBS best programs, like Lehrer, Big
    Bird and Bert and Ernie, NOVA and FRONTLINE to survive, and they will. But, once
    we stop taxpayer subsidies, they might have to ask Bain Capital to show them how to
    keep it viable.

  • Rand

    By the way, I thought Jim Lehrer did a superb job of moderating the debate. He pressed for details and keeping to schedule, but didn’t make himself the center of attention. He let the participants play the game with minimal interference from the ref. There is a reason he is such a highly respected newsman and he showed it in the debate. I hope he set a standard for the future debates.

  • Dru Sefton, Current

    Hi Rand: About 15 percent of PBS’s revenue comes from the federal
    appropriation. Federal dollars also account for about 15 percent of the
    pubcasting system’s overall budget. Thanks for your comments!

  • Joseph

    Stand by for more and longer pledge drives on PBS member stations!

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