On May 1, 1969, Fred Rogers stepped before the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Communication and explained what exactly his job entailed.
Rogers, the man behind the PBS show “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” had gone to Washington, D.C., to defend public television from budget cuts. President Richard Nixon had proposed slashing funding for programming such as Rogers’ in half as the war in Vietnam raged on.
Sitting in front of Sen. John O. Pastore, the chairman of the subcommittee, Rogers didn’t get bogged down in budgetary minutia. Instead, he talked about what he hoped to accomplish with his show. He used it, he said, to help children learn to deal with their problems in a healthy manner ― to instill a sense of confidence in the kids he worked with and who watched him. He used simple sentences and simple words to get his point across:
This is what I give. I give an expression of care every day to each child, to help him realize that he is unique. I end the program by saying, “You’ve made this day a special day, by just your being you. There’s no person in the whole world like you, and I like you, just the way you are.” And I feel that if we in public television can only make it clear that feelings are mentionable and manageable, we will have done a great service for mental health. I think that it’s much more dramatic that two men could be working out their feelings of anger ― much more dramatic than showing something of gunfire.
After telling Pastore what he did, Rogers decided to show him as well.
“Could I tell you the words of one of the songs, which I feel is very important?” he asked. “This has to do with that good feeling of control which I feel that children need to know is there. And it starts out, ‘What do you do with the mad that you feel?’”
He then recited its words:
What do you do with the mad that you feel? When you feel so mad you could bite. When the whole wide world seems oh so wrong, and nothing you do seems very right. What do you do? Do you punch a bag? Do you pound some clay or some dough? Do you round up friends for a game of tag or see how fast you go? It’s great to be able to stop when you’ve planned the thing that’s wrong. And be able to do something else instead ― and think this song ―
“I can stop when I want to. Can stop when I wish. Can stop, stop, stop anytime ... And what a good feeling to feel like this! And know that the feeling is really mine. Know that there’s something deep inside that helps us become what we can. For a girl can be someday a lady, and a boy can be someday a man.”
Pastore, who had never seen Rogers’ show, was visibly touched by the speech.
“I’m supposed to be a pretty tough guy, and this is the first time I’ve had goose bumps for the last two days,” he said. “Looks like you just earned the $20 million.”
Rogers’ speech became one of the most iconic moments in the history of public media. But hidden within it was Rogers’ quiet acknowledgement that shows such as his would face trouble in the free market.
“We don’t have to bop somebody over the head to ... make drama on the screen,” he said. “We deal with such things as getting a haircut.”
For anyone who grew up with Mr. Rogers on the screen, it’s not hard to decipher what the ever-optimistic man was actually saying. Rogers knew his haircut discussion could excite children once he was in front of them, but he also knew it would be hard to compete for their attention as on-screen violence and special effects became ever more present outside of public media.
“I feel that if we in public television can only make it clear that feelings are mentionable and manageable, we will have done a great service for mental health.”
Rogers died in 2003, but public media has continued to provide educational programming that remains trustworthy and popular. NPR ratings reached an all-time high last fall. A bipartisan polling team found earlier this year that 73 percent of all Americans ― including more than 60 percent of Republicans ― opposed eliminating federal funding for public television.
Nevertheless, on Thursday, President Donald Trump went even further than Nixon did in 1969. The president’s budget plan proposed pulling all federal funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which supports NPR and PBS. The CPB receives about $485 million annually from the U.S. government, much less than $54 billion Trump hopes to add to the defense budget.
There would be significant consequences if such a decision went through, according to Patricia Harrison, the president and CEO of CPB.
“The elimination of federal funding to CPB would initially devastate and ultimately destroy public media’s role in early childhood education, public safety, connecting citizens to our history, and promoting civil discussions ― all for Americans in both rural and urban communities,” she said Thursday.
Free-market proponents have long argued that eliminating such educational shows would be fine. If “Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood” can’t survive in the free market, they say, maybe it shouldn’t be able to survive at all. But to many other people, the educational programs provided by public media ― programs that might not be able to otherwise compete with the empty calories available on other channels ― remains inarguably valuable.
Mr. Rogers is gone now. When the time comes later this year to eloquently argue for public media, he won’t be there to save the day. Of course, the question then becomes: Who will?