As six religious programmers prepare Thursday to present to the Department of Justice some 400,000 petitions against EchoStar Communications Corp.'s planned merger with
DirecTV Inc., other religious broadcasters are charging that Louis Sheldon, president
of the Traditional Values Coalition, is orchestrating that protest to help News
Corp. CEO Rupert Murdoch block the merger.
"I believe the recent stand by the executive committee of the National
Religious Broadcasters to oppose the merger may be the result of a meeting that
Louis Sheldon, head of the Traditional Values Coalition, arranged with Rupert
Murdoch," wrote David Clark, president of FamilyNet and former chairman of National Religious Broadcasters, to Attorney General John Ashcroft and Federal Communications Commission
chairman Michael Powell. FamilyNet is a values-based TV and radio network based
in Fort Worth, Texas.
According to Clark and other sources, members of NRB met with Sheldon and
Murdoch in Murdoch's New York office in early March to discuss the merger.
During that meeting, one member said, Murdoch told some Christian programmers he
would commit to airing more religious programming on his systems if the proposed
EchoStar-DirecTV merger fell through and Murdoch ended up owning DirecTV.
Murdoch also noted that he has many other systems worldwide that could air
"Murdoch did give us assurances," said Glenn Plummer, chairman of the NRB and
meeting attendee. "He's probably one of the most influential people in the
world, and he could at least give us a good satisfactory response. The EchoStar
people could not give us that."
Plummer said EchoStar CEO Charlie Ergen was also invited to a meeting with
the NRB in New York, but he declined to come. Instead, Ergen sent his
representative, vice president of programming Michael Schwimmer.
"He was unwilling to make any further commitment to the carriage of religious
programming," Plummer added.
In the end, NRB's executive committee took a position against the merger,
although Plummer said that decision was independent of Murdoch's promises. NRB
listed five reasons why it opposes the merger, including concerns about consumer
access to religious programming and "EchoStar's resistance to Christian and
family-oriented programming." NRB is not participating in Thursday's protest.
The petitions will be presented by Pastor John Hagee of John Hagee
Ministries, the Rev. Keith Butler of Keith Butler Ministries, the Rev. Kenneth Copeland
of Kenneth Copeland Ministries, the Rev. Jesse DuPlantis of Jesse DuPlantis
Ministries, the Rev. Creflo Dollar of Creflo Dollar Ministries and Dr. Richard
Roberts, president of Oral Roberts University.
Still, even that much involvement between religious broadcasters and Murdoch
concerns other Christian programmers.
"I am disappointed that Mr. Sheldon would ask the executive committee of the
NRB to oppose a merger that would increase the reach of religious and morally
sound family programming. It is especially disappointing in light of the morally
repugnant programming presented by Mr. Murdoch's Fox network, which airs programs
like Boston Public in family-viewing time periods," Clark wrote.
"To be lining up with Murdoch, who is well known for having the more sleazy
networks worldwide, seems a little hypocritical," said one religious broadcaster
who disagrees both with the protesters and NRB.
Phone calls to News Corp. representatives were made late Wednesday afternoon
but were not returned by press time. EchoStar had no comment Wednesday.
Two religious broadcasters -- Trinity Broadcast Network and direct-broadcast satellite service Dominion
Sky Angel, neither of which are members of NRB -- said they take a neutral position
on the merger. But both have put out statements calling "misleading" the
information the ministries are distributing and are trying to reassure their
viewers and subscribers that if the merger is approved, Christian channels "will
continue on satellite."
"If this were an issue that we at TBN believe would be harmful to Christian
television, we would alert Christians everywhere," TBN said in a prepared statement.