CNN Keeps Hyping Romney's Proposed PBS Cuts, PBS Host Calls It 'Attack on Children'

CNN continued to hype Big Bird as a key debate issue on Friday morning as Soledad O'Brien brought on PBS "Reading Rainbow" host LeVar Burton who laid into Mitt Romney's promise to cut PBS funding. "Save Big Bird!" and "Romney Takes Aim At Big Bird" read CNN's headlines on screen.

"I was outraged. I couldn't believe the man actually fixed his mouth to say that. I interpreted it as an attack on children, Soledad," Burton ranted. "PBS is the nation's largest classroom. It guarantees equal access to the wonderfulness that PBS has provided for almost 50 years in this country."

CNN highlighted the "Big Bird" moment on Thursday as GOP Congressman Mario Diaz-Balart excoriated them for focusing on frivolity over Romney's clear debate victory. And as O'Brien herself reported on Friday, Sherry Westin of Sesame Workshop told CNN that "'Big Bird' lives on" since "Sesame Workshop receives very, very little funding from PBS."

However, after she quoted Westin, O'Brien fed Burton a talking point. "So what is the argument for funding public broadcasting? One argument I would think would be that it's such a tiny percentage of the federal budget that even conversations about cutting it doesn't really save you money and bring money back into the budget," she argued.

And other than quoting Mitt Romney's argument for cutting PBS subsidies, at no other point did O'Brien challenge Burton's impassioned defense of public broadcasting.

"There are places where you need to cut. And there are places that you just don't cut because it's not right," Burton finished his exhortation to save public broadcasting.

A transcript of the segment, which aired on October 5 on Starting Point at 7:15 a.m. EDT:

SOLEDAD O'BRIEN: So President Obama and Mitt Romney may be back on the campaign trail today but there is one moment from the debate that people are still talking about. And this would be it.

(Video Clip)

MITT ROMNEY, Republican presidential candidate: I will eliminate all programs by this test if they don't pass it. Is the program so critical it's worth borrowing money from China to pay for it? And if not, I'll get rid of it. ObamaCare is on my list. I apologize, Mr. President. I use that term with all respect, by the way.

BARACK OBAMA, President of the United States: I like it.

ROMNEY: Okay, good. So I'll get rid of that. I'm sorry, Jim. I'm going stop the subsidy to PBS. I'm going to stop other things. I like PBS. I love Big Bird. I actually like you, too. But I'm not going to keep on spending money on things to borrow money from China to pay for.

(End Video Clip)

O'BRIEN: Well that remark about stopping funding of Big Bird, "I like Big Bird," lit up social media. Mentions of Big Bird went up 800,000 percent.

BERMAN: That's outside the margin of error.

(Laughter)

O'BRIEN: – on Facebook afterward. PBS lovers, and really Sesame Street lovers were very, very angry, including actor Lavar Burton. He hosted "Reading Rainbow" on PBS for 21 seasons. It's nice to see you this morning. Thanks for talking with us. The CEO of PBS, Paula Kerger, said that she nearly fell off the couch while she watching the debate and she heard that particular part of the debate. What was your reaction? Did you have the same reaction?

LAVAR BURTON, actor: I was outraged. I couldn't believe the man actually fixed his mouth to say that. I interpreted it as an attack on children, Soledad. It's an attack on children, it's an attack on children who come from disenfranchised, you know, background. PBS is the nation's largest classroom. It guarantees equal access to the wonderfulness that PBS has provided for almost 50 years in this country. And to callously, blatantly, say that it's on the agenda to cut is just -- it is not okay, because, look, clearly this candidate -- and I don't believe that Mitt Romney is a bad guy. But I do believe that he believes what he said the other night. And I believe that his comment about the 47 percent is actually what he believes.

O'BRIEN: So let me ask you a question, because Mitt Romney would say – and if you listened to the last part of that chunk he said I'm not going to keep spending money to borrow money to pay for it. And when I spoke to Sherry Westin before the debate, she said that sometimes people confuse funding for PBS and Sesame Street itself. I'll play a little bit of what she told me the other day.

(Video Clip )

SHERRY WESTIN: A Sesame Workshop receives very, very little funding from PBS. So we are able to raise our funding through philanthropic, through our licensed product, which goes back into the educational programming, through corporate underwriting and sponsorship. So quite frankly, you know, you can debate whether or not there should be funding of public broadcasting, but when they always sort of tout out Big Bird and say we're going to kill Big Bird, or, that actually is misleading, because Sesame Street will be here.

O'BRIEN: Big bird lives, no matter what.

WESTIN: Big bird lives on.

(End Video Clip)

O'BRIEN: So what is the argument for funding public broadcasting? One argument I would think would be that it's such a tiny percentage of the federal budget that even conversations about cutting it doesn't really save you money and bring money back into the budget. But why do you think, in your mind, that PBS should not be on the cutting room floor or whatever? Cutting table? Whatever the phrase is.

BURTON: Again, goes back for me to the issue of access. It is -- it is free – and it's a commercial-free environment and it is – it is – universally accessible to anyone with a television, which is everyone in this country. And if you can't afford cable, if you can't afford premium content, you can rely on the public broadcasting service.

Is PBS perfect? No. Have they provided, through their children's programming, for almost 50 years, some of the finest educational content worldwide for our nation's children? Absolutely. Does it deserve to be on the chopping block? Listen –

O'BRIEN: That's the word I was looking for, "chopping block." Thank you for helping me out.

BURTON: The chopping block. Here is – here's something I would like to point out, Soledad. I know in this current economic climate we all have to make different choices. However, I was raised by a woman whose philosophy it was to give her children the best education she could not afford. Do you understand what I'm saying?

O'BRIEN: Hm-hmm. You're saying there's a value in the free.

BURTON: That not only is there value in the free, we have to make the investment in our children if we expect for them to pay off on that investment through their realizing their most full potential. So there are places where you can cut. There are places where you need to cut. And there are places that you just don't cut because it's not right.

O'BRIEN: And for you that would be PBS. Lavar Burton, of course, was host and executive producer of "Reading Rainbow." It's nice to see you, thank you for talking with us this morning.

Matt Hadro
Matt Hadro
Matt Hadro was a News Analyst for the Media Research Center's News Analysis Division from 2010 through early 2014