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Does Mitt Romney want to ‘kill’ Big Bird?

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“During the debates, Mitt Romney told America how he plans to pay for those tax cuts he wants to give America’s wealthiest tax payers... by killing Big Bird! We’ve got to stop this guy. Please donate what you can.”

— Obama campaign Web site

As part of a fundraising appeal, the Obama campaign has claimed that Mitt Romney wants to kill Big Bird in order to pay for tax cuts for the rich. “Save Big Bird! Vote Democratic,” the Obama Web site declares.

This appeal comes as the Obama campaign also launched a satirical ad highlighting Romney’s mention of the Sesame Street character during the first presidential debate. “Mitt Romney knows it’s not Wall Street you have to worry about, it’s Sesame Street,” the ad intones.

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The fundraising appeal has a goal of $1 million, though as of early Wednesday, not a cent had been raised. Still, let’s examine what Romney actually said to see if it is worthy of all of this attention.

The Facts

Below we have a clip of the debate exchange, which came after Romney detailed how he would try to cut spending to reduce the deficit. He first mentioned eliminating the president’s health care law, which he called Obamacare. Then he listed another item.

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“I like PBS. I love Big Bird. Actually, I like you, too,” Romney said to debate moderator Jim Lehrer, the host of PBS’s “NewsHour.” “But I’m not going to keep on spending money on things to borrow money from China to pay for.”

If Obama had been a bit more on his game during the debate, he could have noted that repealing Obamacare would add a bit to the deficit, at least in its first 10 years. He also could have noted that funding for Public Broadcasting amounts to a mere pittance of the federal budget — some $445 million out of $3.8 trillion. That’s a little over 1/10,000 of the budget, or a mere rounding error.

Of course, deficit cutting has to start somewhere, but the former Massachusetts governor might have been more specific about what areas he wants to cut besides two items — the health care law and PBS funding — that excite the Republican base.

Similarly, it is just as silly for the Obama campaign to claim that Romney would use this minor bit of funding to help pay for tax cuts (After all, Romney denies his tax plan even is aimed at benefiting the wealthiest Americans.)

But in any case, Romney clearly said that he loves Big Bird, not that he wants to kill it. And even if he eliminated public funding for PBS, how would that affect Sesame Street, where Big Bird resides?

Not much. The 2009 financial disclosure from Sesame Workshop, the company that produces the program, shows that just $7.9 million came from government grants out of $130 million in total revenue, or about 6 percent.

The company also benefits from station program fees, some of which may come from federal dollars given to local PBS affiliates, which the company has suggested brings the percentage up to about 8 percent. The rest of the money comes from many corporate partners — as well as sales from those cute stuffed toys.

Here’s what Sherrie Westin, Sesame Workshop executive vice president and chief marketing officer, told CNN:

“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 can debate whether or not there should be funding of public broadcasting. But when they always try to tout out Big Bird, and say we’re going to kill Big Bird — that is actually misleading, because Sesame Street will be here.”

The Pinocchio Test

How did “I love Big Bird” turn into “kill Big Bird”? Only through a spin machine going on hyper drive.

Romney may have been off base in suggesting PBS funding has much to do with the deficit, but that’s no excuse for the Obama campaign to declare that means the demise of a popular children’s character. According to the financials of Sesame Workshop, Big Bird should do just fine, with or without public funding.

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Trail Mix: The Washington Post's Felicia Sonmez reports on the back-and-forth between presidential campaigns over the funding of PBS and the Sesame Street character Big Bird who is caught in the crosshairs.

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