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Forget the facts. It’s a joke.

Testy Business Copy Editor Phillip BlanchardA day after the Twitterverse exploded in reaction to Mitt Romney’s vow to fire Big Bird by cutting federal funding to PBS, “Sesame Street” declined to enter the political fray …. (USA Today)

Public broadcasting supporters say the amount of federal funding that PBS receives – $444 million in fiscal 2012—would not make a dent in the deficit …. (Boston Globe)

 

Big Bird

The Spokesman-Review ran this photo with the headline "Big Bird Picketing For Job?"

The presidential campaign hadn’t had the usual goofy gimmick for “clever” writers to seize until Mitt Romney mentioned Big Bird during the first “debate” with Barack Obama. Enabled to use big pictures and drawings of the “Sesame Street” character, editors did not disappoint fans of stupidity. (USA Today referred to Big Bird as “the giant yellow avian” on second reference, an example of the Elongated Yellow Fruit Syndrome so bold it must have been used on purpose. Hardy-har-har.)

Apparently the focus was so much on a cartoonish character that editors forgot to check simple facts before the rush to publish. Naturally, the problem involved money.

Broad “fact-checking” these days seems to be limited to separate stories dedicated exclusively to that purpose.  This is not the place to get into that (don’t get me started); I’m talking about simple stuff that can and should be done on the copy desk.

First, a USA Today editor should have flagged the turn of phrase in which Romney is charged with planning to “fire” Big Bird.  That wasn’t so.  Withholding federal money would not threaten “Sesame Street.” It has been widely reported that nearly all of the show’s costs are covered by business contributions and money the Children’s Television Workshop collects from licensing fees. That, of course, needs “fact-checking,” too, but a few strategic Web searches are enough to question the lede. That takes only a couple of minutes. Without substantiation, the bit about firing Big Bird can be deleted, which it should have been anyhow.

The Boston Globe report excerpted above confuses the source of PBS funding. The Corporation for Public Broadcasting gets the federal subsidy — it is about $445 million in the current budget — and the CPB is the source of federal money for PBS (the entity that allocates funding for PBS and local public TV stations.)  Note that about half of the CPB’s budget goes to local stations, not the national network.  This was covered in many separate “fact-checking” stories, but, again, a one-minute Web search would have called the report into question. Was it queried?

Follow the No. 1 rule of copy editing —assume that when a story lands on the desk, it is unfit for publication — and you won’t get into trouble like this.

About the Author

Phillip Blanchard was in the newspaper business for more than 35 years, most recently as a financial copy editor at the Washington Post. Previously he worked at the Chicago Sun-Times and newspapers in upstate New York. He founded Testy Copy Editors, the online forum, in 1992. Follow him on Twitter: @testycopyeditor. Or email Phillip at blanp@testycopyeditors.org.

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