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BC Beat

With Robert Edelstein

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Who's Afraid of the Fairness Doctrine?

The Fairness Doctrine: imminent threat to the talk-radio industry or red herring? Depends whom you ask, of course.

For the past year, conservative talkers have portrayed the reinstatement of that vestigial FCC policy—which required broadcasters to present a balanced view of important issues—as Democratic candidate Barack Obama's first order of business should he win the presidency (presumably after ordering all TV sets in the White House to be switched from Fox News to Al Jazeera).

Although the current clamor grew out of the immigration debate, in which even Republican legislators groused that conservative broadcasters had killed President Bush's immigration bill, fear of the Fairness Doctrine has cropped up off and on since 1993, when Rush Limbaugh rallied listeners against a reinstatement effort he dubbed the "Hush Rush" bill.

But while some Democrats, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, have recently expressed interest in seeing the return of the doctrine, which was declared unconstitutional in 1987, critics of conservative talk-radio say the idea is a straw man ginned up to get listeners in a fighting mood.

In his new book, Shock Jocks: Hate Speech & Talk Radio (AlterNet Books), veteran journalist and filmmaker Rory O'Connor notes that "[m]ost informed political observers believe there is scant possibility that the fusty doctrine will ever be reimposed."

But conservative talker Mike Gallagher isn't convinced.

"I only pray that it's ginned up," he told B&C. Gallagher, whose Mike Gallagher Show is rated by Talkers magazine as the sixth most-listened-to in the country, believes reinstatement would "absolutely destroy talk radio" by diluting opinion in pursuit of balance. "Rush would have to be like a morning-show host in Dubuque. It's terrifying."

And he isn't persuaded that Obama "does not support reimposing the Fairness Doctrine on broadcasters," as Obama's press secretary told B&C last month.

Either way, couldn't the prospect of an Obama administration turn out to be a boon for conservative talk radio, much like Bill Clinton's presidency?

"It's gonna sound hokey," Gallagher says, "but I love my country so much, and I'm convinced [Obama] would be so bad for the country, that I wouldn't wish for that to happen."

Encore Year

What a year. A writers' strike remaking the season. Dogged preparations for Olympic coverage in Asia. A Democratic National Convention featuring an electrifying African-American candidate and denouncements of George Bush.

Yep, 1988 had it all—or at least enough to suggest uncanny parallels with 2008, according to a perusal of the B&C archive.

Back then the Olympics were in Seoul, and it was Jesse Jackson—by then, no longer a candidate—who offered a message of hope and change at the 1988 convention, where Michael Dukakis accepted the nomination to challenge George H.W. Bush. Dukakis, it turned out, didn't exactly magnetize the TV universe. It remains to be seen whether Barack Obama can draw more viewers to next month's DNC in Denver.

Then there was the aftermath of the 22-week writers' strike, which was headed for a tentative settlement on Aug. 4, 1988. "This year's development season was altered significantly by the writer's strike," the magazine observed before noting some of the casualties, such as Nurse Bob, Dolphin Bay and Satin's Touch. The Cheech Show never even got the chance to become forgettable.

Even then, networks were considering cutting back on live coverage of the political conventions. Who could blame them? Ratings reported in the Aug. 1 Broadcasting were abysmal. NBC's day-one coverage finished highest—at 26th place for the week, just a hair below an episode of Jake and the Fatman.

And, in a fitting tribute to the late, great Estelle Getty, the most popular show that week: Golden Girls.