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Public turns to Fred Rogers to save federal arts funding

Published: Friday, March 17, 2017 9:26 p.m. CDT
Fred Rogers, seen here as Mister Rogers in his long-running PBS kids television show “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” has become a rallying cry for opposition to President Donald Trump’s spending plan to cut federal funds for the arts. A video re-emerged of Rogers testifying before a U.S. Senate Subcommittee in 1969.

PITTSBURGH – A video of Fred Rogers testifying before a U.S. Senate Subcommittee in 1969 has re-emerged as a rallying cry for opposition to President Donald Trump’s spending plan to cut off federal funds for the arts.

For 7 minutes, a steady but emotional Rogers is seen persuading Sen. John O. Pastore, D-Rhode Island, that federal funding of children’s programming on the Public Broadcasting Service would be dollars well spent.

In 1968, the creator of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” was appointed chairman of the Forum on Mass Media and Child Development of the White House Conference on Youth, and he often was consulted as an expert on children’s programming. A year later, the Senate Subcommittee on Communications was considering $20 million for PBS and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, as proposed by President Lyndon Johnson before he left office. The incoming president, Richard Nixon, wanted to cut the proposed funding to $10 million.

“I’m constantly concerned about what our children are seeing, and for 15 years I have tried in this country and Canada to present what I feel is a meaningful expression of care,” Rogers told Sen. Pastore, who was unfamiliar with the Latrobe, Pa., native and his work on television.

Rogers then recited the words to one of his songs, “What do you do with the mad that you feel?” to which Sen. Pastore replied, “I think it’s wonderful. Looks like you just earned the 20 million dollars.”

Fred Rogers, whose “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” was produced at WQED, Pittsburgh’s PBS station, died at age 74 in 2003. During the final episode in the fall of 2000, he said, “Those of us in broadcasting have a special calling to give whatever we feel is the most nourishing that we can for our audience. We are servants of those who watch and listen.”

Flash forward to 2017, and immediately after it became apparent that Trump intended to defund PBS and the National Endowment for the Arts, among other arts-oriented groups, the video of Rogers’ testimony began popping up in Facebook timelines and Twitter feeds. Two videos of the testimony on YouTube have been shared at least 3.7 million times.

This isn’t the first time Rogers’ testimony has resurfaced in the arts’ time of need. MSNBC called attention to it after a 2012 presidential debate, in which Republican candidate Mitt Romney said getting rid of programs such as PBS, then the home of “Sesame Street,” would help pay for tax breaks and stimulate job creation.

“I like PBS. I love Big Bird,” Romney said at the time. “But I am not going to keep spending money on things [we have] to borrow money from China to pay for.”

When talking to senators 48 years ago, Fred Rogers explained what he did in terms of dollars and the emotional well-being of children.

He said he had started at WQED 15 years earlier, with a per-episode budget of $30. Through foundations, affiliated public broadcasting stations and federal funding, the budget had risen to $6,000 – the cost of 2 minutes of cartoons, he said.

“We deal with such things as the inner drama of childhood,” Rogers said. “We don’t have to bop somebody over the head to make drama on the screen. We deal with such things as getting a haircut or the feelings about brothers and sisters, and the kind of anger that arises in simple family situations. And we speak to it constructively.”

Sharon Eberson: seberson@post-gazette.com


©2017 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

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