N.Y.'s Power Couple

Reverend Al Sharpton and Rupert Murdoch join forces to fight television technology

Politics and paradox often go laughingly hand in hand, but when Al Sharpton and Rupert Murdoch are joined at the reverend's rotund hip, it's likely to be more than the usual hoot.

Murdoch's Fox Television Stations Group is in an all-out $2 million war against Nielsen Media Research, the company that has forever documented how many of us are watching what show. And the Rev is manning the picket line for him, just as he did two years ago in another major Murdochian campaign for gain, the takeover of satellite colossus DirecTV.

Both these joint ventures have occurred since October 2001, when Murdoch's New York Post published a cartoon depicting then-and-future mayoral candidate Fernando Ferrer kissing Sharpton's butt. Do you believe a Brooklyn grand jury is currently considering indictments against the campaign of Ferrer's opponent, Mark Green, for allegedly reprinting that cartoon and distributing it as a flyer without reporting the expenditure?

Though Sharpton derided the recycled cartoon as racist and used it to polarize the election, crowing later that he beat Green and installed Mike Bloomberg, he appears to hold blameless the news organization that published it. Only lifelong liberal Green was held accountable. It's not that the Rev has a blind spot for right-wing potentates. It's that he's blind. (See the Voice series on Sharpton's presidential partner, GOP dirty trickster Roger Stone, beginning February 4-10.)

Sharpton told the Voice that he's recently "withdrawn" from the Nielsen fight, which involves the possible undercount of minority viewers by a new local-ratings system called electronic people meters. He insists that neither he nor his National Action Network got a dime of support from Fox or its spin-off, the Don't Count Us Out Coalition, for the demonstrations he organized at Nielsen's New York headquarters. Though the meters have determined national ratings since 1987, Fox prefers the daily diaries still used in local markets because early tests of the meter indicate that its prime-time New York shows, like The Parkers, plummet under the new system. If plunges in Murdoch's advertising revenue don't sound like the latest civil rights frontier, it's only because Sharpton and city councilmen like Hiram Monserrate and Charles Barron, who savagely berated Nielsen executives at two recent hearings, are more closely in touch with Martin Luther King than we cynics are.

Contrary to Sharpton's claim that he had nothing to do with Murdoch other than sharing his agenda, Howard Wolfson, the ex-Hillary Clinton aide whose lobbying firm is orchestrating Murdoch's campaign, sent Nielsen a proposed settlement on May 27 and claimed to represent both Sharpton and Murdoch. The written offer promised that "the Don't Count Us Out Coalition, the National Action Network and the News Corporation"—Murdoch's conglomerate—would "suspend any and all public activities associated with the current campaign" if Nielsen agreed to certain demands. Wolfson said Sharpton's efforts were "independent" of the coalition, but declined to comment on how he could have purported to represent NAN in settlement negotiations.

Nielsen did comply with some of Wolfson's demands, and that's almost precisely when Sharpton says he withdrew from the bitter battle. Nielsen helped create a task force to study the issue, including black advertising mogul Byron Lewis, a NAN board member and financial backer of Sharpton's. The task force will monitor the people meters, which went into service at the start of June, though Nielsen did agree to retain the old diary system as well and to track the comparative results.

It wasn't just Sharpton, however, who traveled the long road from exploiting the Murdoch 2001 cartoon to shilling for him. Former Bronx Democratic boss Robert Ramirez, who ran Ferrer's mayoral campaign and pulled the plug on Green in his borough on Election Day, had actually been on Murdoch's payroll until a few days ago. MirRam Group, a lobbying and PR firm founded by Ramirez and Luis Miranda, another Ferrer consultant, was retained through Wolfson to push the Murdoch agenda. Miranda's anointed successor as director of the Hispanic Federation, Lorraine Cortez-Vasquez, held a May 20 press conference at Nielsen denouncing it and appeared as coalition co-chair at a May 25 council hearing. Pols tied to Ramirez, such as Assemblyman Jose Rivera, who replaced Ramirez at the helm of the Bronx party, screamed almost as loudly about the meters as Ramirez used to scream about the cartoon/leaflet.

MirRam's contract, like one with GOP superstar lobbyist Al D'Amato, wasn't renewed when it expired in June because, as Wolfson put it, "the battle has shifted out of New York" to Los Angeles and elsewhere. As with Sharpton, however, a former councilmember tied to Miranda, Guillermo Linares, has been named to the task force. Wolfson wouldn't discuss any role he or consultants like Ramirez might've played in producing, quite literally, the kangaroo court at the council, with members assailing Nielsen's "all-white executive board" while championing the cause of purebred Murdoch.

Sharpton, of course, says he only "heard" that Fox was interested in the issue, insisting he entered the fray at the urging of Brooklyn congressman Ed Towns. What really drove Sharpton berserk, however, were Voice questions about whether he was seeking a job as a paid commentator with Fox in April, when he first met with Nielsen and blasted it at a press conference, or in May, when he led 30 pickets in a demonstration at Nielsen's headquarters. Sharpton called such questions "fantasies" and "conspiracy theories." He says he actually had reached agreement with CNBC way back in mid March, even though his contract to appear as a commentator during the network's Democratic and Republican conventions wasn't announced until June. News accounts and Voice calls during April and May indicated that his agent was actively shopping him in April and May.

What also had Sharpton fulminating was any attempt to remind him of his prior Murdoch service in 2002, just months after the cartoon, when he traveled all the way to Colorado to picket the home of a media mogul Murdoch was then fighting. Sharpton also picketed the Washington headquarters of the mogul's company, Echo Star, as well as its investment banker, helping to block Echo Star's purchase of DirecTV. Echo Star had outbid Murdoch for DirecTV, forcing Murdoch to jump-start a campaign against it similar to the current one against Nielsen. Sharpton claimed to simultaneously have some problem with Echo Star's mistreatment of black gospel programming. Murdoch eventually got the Bush Justice Department to block the Echo Star deal, acquiring DirecTV himself in 2003 for billions less than he had previously bid, perhaps the most important deal of a stunningly successful career. In addition to his Echo Star performance, Sharpton was even posing for Postpromotional ads shortly after the cartoon hoopla.

But the charge that got him calling back to bellow again was any suggestion that there might be a conflict between becoming a CNBC convention commentator and speaking in prime time, at nominee John Kerry's request, in Boston next month. Sharpton said that was all OK unless he commented on his own speech—a dual-screen visual that might send Nielsen soaring. The closest he could come to a parallel was Joe Trippi, who became a cable commentator after he quit the Howard Dean campaign and is not expected to seize the convention podium.

None of this is intended to say that Murdoch has no legitimate points to make about the Nielsen switch. The Media Rating Council refused to accredit Nielsen's New York system until the company "addresses certain matters of noncompliance with minimum standards." But the MRC also announced it's "fully supportive of people meter technology," and "condemns the use of public campaigns" like Fox's to discredit it. The MRC is apparently concerned about serious technical difficulties with the system here, which Nielsen says it's working on resolving. But that didn't come out until well after Sharpton picked up the bullhorn.

To him, Ramirez, and Miranda—all of whom may be at Ferrer's side again in next year's campaign—yesterday's racist is today's potential payday. It's they who behave as if their core constituencies have no collective memory.


Research assistance: Abby Aguirre, Caitlin Chandler, Adam Hutton, Marc Schultz, Ben Shestakofsky, and Andrea Toochin

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