PBS Blogger Oozes Over Sesame Street Muppet 'Catalysts for Social Change' [Corrected]

Sometimes, from the wilderness outside that insular liberal bubble known as PBS, the self-congratulations reaches new levels of absurdity. PBS is so insular that it hires bloggers to promote PBS documentaries, even PBS documentaries that lionize PBS programs.

I speak of this blog post: PBS has hired bloggers to comment on its programs on a site called "Remotely Connected." Paid blogger Levi Asher promoted a documentary on the PBS show "Sesame Street," or more precisely a promotional film on how Sesame Workshop markets international versions of "Sesame Street." [CORRECTION: Asher and the other PBS bloggers are not paid. See statement below.] The documentary series is titled "Independent Lens." I have no earthly idea how a somehow-edgy "independent" filmmaker makes a film glowingly recounting how Sesame Workshop, the global conglomerate, is foisting its "Muppet catalysts for social change" on the world for profit. But Asher loves the whole promotional circle:

What would America be like without Sesame Street?

Luckily, we’ll never have to know. Sesame Street debuted in 1969, the year that Crosby, Stills and Nash sang “Teach Your Children Well”, and the innovative children’s show seems to have sprung from the same love-and-peace sensibility as Graham Nash’s song. The show’s stated purpose was to introduce small children to the alphabet and the numbering system, but it was hardly a secret that the kids were being taught ethnic diversity, urban pride and conflict-resolution skills along the way. (It was perhaps a bigger secret that many kids like me watched the show long after we had the 26 letters and 10 digits down cold, just for the funky music and funny puppets.)

I hope Asher doesn't ever call anyone else on the Web a "corporate tool." The official PBS website for this documentary also sells "Sesame Street" as a progressive force to be reckoned with:

When it first aired in 1969, "Sesame Street" was considered groundbreaking. A product of the era’s progressive and civil rights movements, it boasted the first mixed-race cast and first urban setting on a children’s television show. One of the program’s goals was to help level the educational playing field for all pre-school children. Sesame Workshop’s international co-productions now illustrate the current political and social environments of their home countries.

Today, Sesame Street is aired in more than 120 countries around the world, and Sesame Workshop is developing co-productions in India, Afghanistan, Indonesia, Northern Ireland and Brazil. As fascinating primer on art, media and intercultural dialogue, THE WORLD ACCORDING TO SESAME STREET illustrates both the many cultural differences and similarities of producing the children’s television program on a global level.

In a Q&A with the filmmakers, we learn they were fascinated "that Muppets could be the catalyst for social change." They are very much in love with Sesame Workshop:

Linda Hawkins Costigan: There are several things that we hope that people take from the film. Number one is reflected in a quote that Anu Gupta of Sesame Workshop said: “Children are not born haters, they are taught to hate.” We were so surprised to find three- and four-year-old Serbians and Albanians in Kosovo talking about each other with distrust and hatred. We hope that people understand that our actions and speech have repercussions.

Linda Goldstein Knowlton: I keep thinking about this quote from Margaret Mead: “Never believe that a few caring people can’t change the world. For indeed, that’s all who ever have.” Sesame Street was born of a conversation between two people. The co-productions are all born of conversations between people who want to change the future of their countries. What if we all asked ourselves, “What difference do I want to make?” And every day, we did one thing to achieve it?

How much are they in love? They say they could make this documentary for the rest of their lives:

This film was a passion project. We could make this film for the rest of our lives. There are so many stories to tell that should have been included, but there wasn’t enough time. Sesame Workshop is creating shows in Israel, Palestine and Jordan and starting new co-productions in Indonesia and India. They are even doing public service announcements in response to the war in Israel and Lebanon, and that is a fraction of what they are doing.

They even imagine a presidential administration full of competent political Muppets:

 We actually believe that several of the Muppets would make great politicians. For example: We’d make Ernie and Bert co-president (we find working as a team makes us more creative and reasonable). We hope they would be a bit nepotistic and appoint some of the other Muppets to certain cabinet posts: The Count in the Treasury, Cookie Monster at the Food and Drug Administration, Grover as chief of staff, Khoka (who teaches girl empowerment and education on the Egyptian co-production) as secretary of education, Big Bird as secretary of defense and Kami (the HIV-positive muppet from South Africa) as secretary of state.

If you somehow don't think this all sounds like Sesame Workshop public relations, then check out their 2005 Annual Report.

CORRECTION: Both PBS and Asher told me that the Remotely Connected bloggers are not paid. Asher asked me to post this response:

 "I am not a paid staffer of PBS, and it's surprising that NewsBustersmade the assumption that I am, since it's clearly stated on every single page of the Remotely Connected blog that all contributors are"guest bloggers" who have been "invited" to contribute.  How can a responsible media-watch organization (as I assume NewsBusters claims to be) make the leap that guest bloggers who have been invited tocontribute are "paid staffers"?  Sloppy journalism, no? Most importantly, I am nobody's corporate tool.  I was not paid to write this article about Sesame Street, but if I had been paid I would have written the same exact piece, simply because I love Sesame Street.  It's classic TV, on par with The Honeymooners or All In The Family or The Cosby Show, and I'm proud to support its continued existence.  It also doesn't bother me that the Children's Television Workshop operates as a business, and I don't know why NewsBuster thinks there is something shameful about this. Sesame Street lives! Perhaps the writers at NewsBusters.org need to catch some episodes and learn some lessons."

I should note that the opinions (and the error) in this blog are mine, and I regret that the error would reflect badly on anyone else. I will agree that assuming that the bloggers were paid was "sloppy."

Tim Graham
Tim Graham
Tim Graham is Executive Editor of NewsBusters and is the Media Research Center’s Director of Media Analysis