National Endowment for the Arts

LeVar Burton "can't stay silent" on PBS defunding; James Doohan reserving judgment.

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This is literally what would happen without public funding for the arts.

Former Reading Rainbow host LeVar Burton is furious about Mitt Romney's comments on PBS funding at last night's debate. 

Burton, the beloved star of Roots and Star Trek: The Next Generation, and by general acclamation one of the nicest guys in show biz, tells TMZ

I am personally outraged that any serious contender for the White House would target as part of his campaign the children of America in this fashion.

Educators across the country, as well as millions of children and adults know that the programming on PBS has been responsible for significant improvements in education, literacy, math, science and life skills for generations of our children… 

Defunding PBS directly punishes the less fortunate by removing this trusted and extraordinary educational resource available to all.

On behalf of America's children, I can't stay silent. I encourage you to join me in fighting this short-sighted and frankly mean-spirited attack on our children.

I have great regard for Burton. I particularly like the way PBS constantly plays reruns of Reading Rainbow, which Burton hosted for several centuries, in random order, so that Burton has become a kind of real-life Billy Pilgrim whose age and looks seem to change at random, unstuck from time or seasonal arcs. 

But the starship Enterprise's second most famous chief engineer is a few dilithium crystals short of a legitimate argument here. 

First, as Reason's Jesse Walker has noted, nobody is actually going to defund the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. The threat has been around for decades, and it's a cheap way for conservative politicians to burnish their images with social cons. But nothing has ever come of it, and nothing ever will. 

Second, whatever "educators across the country" say, there's no evidence that PBS programming is responsible for significant improvements in educational attainment. The number of high school graduates per 100 17-year-olds fell sharply [pdf] in the 25 years after the Corporation for Public Broadcasting was created in 1967, and both verbal and math SAT scores [pdf] are lower now than they were in 1969, the year Sesame Street went on the air. Maybe in some less measureable sense television is making kids smarter than they were back in the 19th century, when 14-year-olds were able to improvise pages of Latin verse in imitation of Horace without consulting a library. But there is no basis for Burton's assertion. 

Third, Romney deserves criticism for threatening Big Bird, but not for the reasons Burton thinks. You could get rid of all federal funding for broadcasting, the arts, and so on, and the resulting dent in the annual deficit would so small it would not even count as a rounding error. Romney's needless reference to the defunding theater Walker described was a low point in a strong debate performance.

Finally, Big Bird doesn't need the taxpayers at all. Burton has worked at PBS, but he worked more prominently (and I would guess, for a lot more money) at Paramount. He should ask his former co-worker Dora the Explorer, or maybe the Little Einsteins over at Disney, how you can put out quality educational children's programming without public funding. Believe it or not, it's being done all the time. 

Burton's engine room predecessor James Doohan merged with the infinite in 2005, but you can never be sure death is final in the Star Trek universe. Presumably Doohan, a Canadian, would support continued federal funding for broadcasting.