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Fox News Tries to Foreclose on Sesame Street

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The high-pitched pundits of Fox News Channel have had their sites aimed at NPR nonstop since the radio network sacked analyst Juan Williams last week for likening all Muslims to terrorists.

They've not only tried to turn Williams into some kind of media martyr (though it's hard to feel too sorry for a guy who was unemployed for about 20 minutes before signing a $2 million deal with Fox) but have gone so far as to stalk NPR President Vivian Schiller on the streets of D.C.

The Williams' hullabaloo has dominated the headlines, but Fox News and its Republican allies are hunting much larger game: Big Bird.

Sarah Palin, Bill O'Reilly, Glenn Beck, Newt Gingrich, Karl Rove and Megyn Kelly, among others, have taken to the air calling on Congress to wholly defund public broadcasting. They don't just want to silence NPR, but to pull the plug on every network, station and program that gets public support -- from PBS to Pacifica. They want to freeze out Frontline and foreclose on Sesame Street.

On The Factor, O'Reilly called for "immediate suspension of every taxpayer dollar" going to public media. "We're going to get legislation," he said. "We're going to freeze it down, so they don't get any more money."

On cue, Sen. Jim DeMint (R -S.C.) promised to introduce legislation that would do just that: zero out $420 million from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), which supports stations that offer important public affairs programs such as The News Hour with Jim Lehrer and All Things Considered. Eliminating funds would kill the successful "Ready to Learn" program, which supports children's shows, including Sesame Street, Arthur and Dragon Tales.

"There's ... no reason to force taxpayers to subsidize liberal programming they disagree with," DeMint said late last week.

What We Get from Public Media

The right's gamble here is that their efforts to paint public broadcasting as the voice of encroaching socialism will fire up the passions of some Americans, a week before many of us head to the polls.

"NPR is a public institution that directly or indirectly exists because the taxpayers fund it. And what do we, the taxpayers, get for this?" asked Sarah Palin.

Well, according to poll after poll, the taxpayers believe that they get a lot -- not just the educational programming that brings us Big Bird, but also hard-hitting journalism that the much of the commercial media have abandoned.

According to the nonpartisan Roper polling firm, Americans rank PBS as the second "most valuable" service taxpayers receive for their money, outranked only by national defense. Moreover, a majority of the public believe the amount of federal funding public broadcasting receives is "too little."

Comparatively, this is true. The United States already has one of the lowest levels of federal funding of public media in the developed world -- at just $1.43 per capita; Canada spends $22 per capita; England spends $80; people in Finland and Denmark spend much more. And it's no coincidence that the nations with highest public media funding seem to do a far better job producing journalism that challenges government and corporations and upsets the status quo.

And maybe that's what scares Palin's crew the most. Perhaps their goal in all of this, as has been suggested elsewhere, is not to slash funding for public broadcasting but to scare public broadcasters into presenting news with a slant more favorable to the right.

Why Bashing Big Bird Will Backfire

Whatever the rationale, their tactics are a proven loser.

Every time PBS and NPR have come under attack, the American public has risen up in protest to defend -- not defund -- it. A similar right-wing push in 2005 failed after more than a million people contacted Congress demanding that full funding be restored. Attacking public media also ended up hurting Nixon in the 1970s, Reagan in the 1980s, and Newt Gingrich in the 1990s.

In just a few days, hundreds of thousands of people already have mobilized in defense of Big Bird and better journalism. You can add your voice here.

Here's hoping this time we don't just stop yet another assault on public media, but actually start solving the structural problems with the system that has left it underfunded and overexposed to these types of political shenanigans.