October 12, 2012

Big Bird: Fair or Fowl Play?


Two icons of PBS—Big Bird and Jim Lehrer—have received almost as much attention as Obama and Romney in the aftermath of the first presidential debate. How come? Was fowl play involved?Continue

Big Bird: Fair or Fowl Play?

By Michael Getler

OCTOBER 11, 2012

* Ombudsman’s Note: This posting was updated on Friday, Oct. 12, to include a response to this column from Linda Winslow, executive producer of the PBS NewsHour, and Boisfeuillet “Bo” Jones, president and CEO of MacNeil/Lehrer Productions.

Two icons of public broadcasting — Big Bird and Jim Lehrer, or Jim Lehrer and Big Bird, if you prefer — have been much in the news lately. Both have been revered symbols of PBS for decades. Both are now at the center of controversies. But PBS actually had nothing to do with either controversy.

So, in one sense, these are not issues for the ombudsman. But both controversies seem worthy of note because: many hundreds of people wrote to me about them, both of these iconic figures are associated in the public mind with PBS, both are linked to that Oct. 3 debate and, as in many situations, the explanations never seem to catch up with the accusations.

First, some basic explanations.

Big Bird appeared in a political campaign advertisement for President Obama that Sesame Street and PBS had nothing to do with and which the Sesame Street Workshop — which produces the program and is a separate entity from PBS, which distributes the program — asked the campaign to take off the air. So far, the Obama campaign hasn’t done so.

Lehrer, who stepped aside as anchor of the PBS NewsHour more than a year ago, moderated the Oct. 3 debate between the president and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney when he  invited to do so by the bi-partisan Commission on Presidential Debates. PBS had nothing to do with the selection, debate or with Lehrer’s role and covered it just as other television networks did.