LACHLAN MURDOCH is demonstrating that the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree — establishing himself as one of the most adept puppet-masters since Geppetto, while leaving a host of elected officials and minority activists doing News Corp.’s bidding and dancing to its tune.

There’s considerable irony in the strange bedfellows behind Don’t Count Us Out, a Fox-orchestrated campaign to keep Nielsen Media Research from adopting peoplemeter technology in major cities — thus casting an arcane business dispute as a civil rights issue and doing a disservice to the legitimate pursuit of such goals.

Put plainly, liberal politicos characterizing the ruckus as a question of racial equality have been snookered — and by a studio well-known for backing conservative causes, no less, as well as the proprietor of Fox News Channel.

In a nutshell, Fox is understandably concerned that the peoplemeter shift will negatively impact ratings for its TV stations — now under the aegis of Rupert Murdoch’s son Lachlan, deputy chief operating officer of News Corp. and chairman of Fox’s TV station group — in markets like New York, L.A. and Chicago. So with an assist from stories in the News Corp.-owned New York Post, the company has manipulated politicians, among them Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton and the Rev. Al Sharpton, into carrying its water by pressing for a postponement of Nielsen’s rollout.

Given the public’s lack of sophistication about how Nielsen methodology works, “It was relatively easy for Fox to shape the story to suit its purposes,” concluded an analysis by the media research firm Carat Insight, under the headline “Fox Fights Dirty.”

SHAME ON FOX, you might say, for employing hardball tactics, though if the younger Murdoch is auditioning to eventually segue into dad’s gig, he’s certainly exhibited a can-do attitude and creative flair.

The real embarrassment here, though, belongs with public servants and so-called community leaders that labeled this a “terrible injustice” first and seem willing to sort out the details later. Indeed, once couched in racial terms, politicians pounced on the issue the way the Soprano clan goes after a baked ziti.

Alex Nogales, CEO of the National Hispanic Media Coalition, took pains during a press conference Monday to say Fox didn’t prompt the campaign even though they share the same objective. Those joining him included Los Angeles City Council members Jan Perry and Bernard Parks as well as Rep. Hilda Solis (D-Cal.), whose comments were loaded with indignation but mostly incomprehensible.

Grasping for evidence of a possible conspiracy, Parks pointed out that he had never met a Nielsen family, which is sort of like saying you’ve never met anyone who was called by the Gallup Poll. Big country out there, y’know? (The event was such a snooze Fox-owned KTTV’s 90-second piece on “the McDonald’s model who’s turning heads” was three times as long as its report about the protest.)

I don’t doubt that these folks sincerely wish to further minority opportunities in media. Charges of racial inequity, however, should never be leveled lightly and only promise to undermine activists’ credibility when they next engage the entertainment industry, whose track record in promoting diversity doesn’t need to be misrepresented to appear less-than stellar.

Perhaps forgivably blindsided by the initial attacks, Nielsen has since mounted a counter-offensive citing Fox’s role in using surrogates to push its agenda — a point mainstream media outlets have appeared to note reluctantly. “I was surprised that they were able to succeed in turning this into a political issue,” Nielsen rep Jack Loftus conceded.

TRUTH BE TOLD, the particulars of Nielsen ratings remain a mystery even to most people working in Hollywood. Still, the fluctuation likely to occur in switching from diaries (where people have to remember and write down what they watched) to peoplemeters in order to gather detailed demographic data has as much to do with racial politics as “Van Helsing” does with the state of Red Cross blood supplies.

Murdoch the younger was traveling and unavailable for comment, but a News Corp. spokesman denied that the company has stage-managed the controversy. As for the political response, “It’s not artificial. It’s a natural expression of outrage,” he said, adding, when asked if Fox views the ruckus as a civil rights matter, “We see this as an accuracy issue.”

In other words, let the politicians thunder away and pay no attention to that man behind the curtain — a budding wizard, it seems, working his magic at a company from Oz.