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Public turns to Fred Rogers to save arts funding

Sharon Eberson, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on

Published in Entertainment News

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 seven 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."

It is not just arts advocates who have taken inspiration from Rogers using a viral internet message. In 2013, one of the most shared Facebook posts on the day of the Boston Marathon attacks was this Fred Rogers quote: "When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, 'Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.' "

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