NEW YORK -- After years of bombastic headlines, the media's fascination with the Rev. Al Sharpton finally seemed to be wearing a bit thin last spring. The gravel-voiced Brooklyn preacher was on trial for fraud and grand larceny, and editors had grown weary of his fiery pronouncements on racial matters. Some had even taken to cropping him out of news photographs.

But Sharpton soon muscled his way back into the spotlight:

As Nelson Mandela headed for New York, Sharpton tried to upstage the visit by demanding to be jailed on a two-year-old protest conviction, and when Sharpton did serve the 10-day sentence, he posed for a behind-bars picture that the New York Post splashed on its front page.

A Manhattan jury took just six hours to acquit Sharpton after a three-month criminal trial, bolstering his claim that he was a victim of government harassment.

After a lifetime of denouncing drug abuse, Sharpton appeared at the cocaine and perjury trial of D.C. Mayor Marion Barry and charged that the mayor was being selectively prosecuted. The mayor snubbed him, as did most of the media.

Having continued to champion Tawana Brawley's tale of rape and assault long after a grand jury found the claims to be false, Sharpton escorted the teenager to the Central Park jogger trial, where they stood in solidarity with the three Harlem youths who were later convicted of brutally raping a white woman.

And on Monday, Sharpton was arrested after leading 175 marchers in blocking traffic in Atlantic City -- ostensibly to protest the lack of opportunities for young people -- and laying plans to shut down the city's casinos and disrupt the Miss America pageant throughout the week.

In the privacy of their newsroom cubicles, journalists here often agonize about whether to cover Sharpton's latest theatrics. After all, they say, how does a man with a relatively small following -- there has been testimony that he paid young blacks $5 apiece to show up at his demonstrations -- warrant such prominent coverage?

"If he is the monster, then we are the Dr. Frankensteins who created him," says New York Post Editor Jerry Nachman.

"He is the assignment editor's dream come true, and not just because of his flamboyance and provocative statements," he said. "He knows about deadlines. He knows about photo opportunities. He knows how to use a phone beeper for radio. He understands us cold."

For all the ridicule he endures, Al Sharpton knows how to manufacture news, and much of the New York media remains addicted to his inflammatory rhetoric. That was made clear in May when Sharpton warned that acquittals in the Bensonhurst racial murder trial might cause angry blacks to "burn the city down," and the New York Post trumpeted his words in a front-page, red-ink headline.

But it is not only the city's tabloid scribes and action-news types who religiously chronicle Sharpton's exploits, often despite their better judgment. He has been the subject of lengthy profiles in the Los Angeles Times, the Wall Street Journal and the British magazine Face. He was prominently featured in a recent PBS documentary. Esquire is said to be working on a piece.

Clearly, there is something more at work here than a flair for sound bites and publicity stunts. Even the reverend's harshest critics have been forced to admit that he touches a nerve, that he taps into a vein of black discontent with white society so deep that its very existence makes white reporters and editors uncomfortable. Revelations that would devastate other leaders -- such as the news that Sharpton secretly worked as an FBI informant and tape-recorded conversations with blacks -- rarely stick to Sharpton because they merely confirm the view of his supporters that the white media and the white criminal justice system are out to get him.

If importance can be measured in column inches, Sharpton remains an important black leader, one who can keep himself in the news simply with his ability to infuriate. White columnists love to tee off on Sharpton. Jack Newfield of the Daily News calls Sharpton and his associates, Alton Maddox Jr. and C. Vernon Mason, "racial ambulance-chasers." The New York Post's Pete Hamill prefers the term "race racketeers."

But some black journalists have a radically different view. Wilbert Tatum, publisher of the Amsterdam News, who often attended Sharpton's trial in a show of solidarity, says the reverend's critics "have created a caricature of black leadership. He was fat. He wore jogging suits. He wore a medallion and gold chains. And the unforgivable of unforgivables, he had processed hair. The white media, perhaps not consciously, said, 'We're going to promote this guy because we can point up the ridiculousness and paucity of black leadership.'

"Al understood precisely what they were doing, precisely. Al is probably the most brilliant tactician this country has ever produced, and probably the best phrase-maker, including Jesse Jackson."

If the 35-year-old college dropout is a hero to angry young blacks, he is also an embarrassment to some middle-class blacks and a reviled figure in much of the white community. A Daily News poll found that 90 percent of whites, and 73 percent of blacks, believe Sharpton is harming race relations in New York. In light of such numbers, it is tempting to dismiss Sharpton as a demagogue, a relentless self-promoter, a man bent on turning up the racial thermostat.

Yet even some detractors are having second thoughts. Nachman, who regularly savaged Sharpton as a New York Post columnist, now says, "I'm no longer sure what I thought about Al Sharpton a year or two ago still applies. I spent a lot of time on the street. There's a lot of anger, a lot of frustration. Rightly or wrongly, he may be articulating a great deal more of what typical attitudes are than some of us thought."

Besides, says Nachman, "who am I to decide who 'legitimate' spokesmen for the black community are?"

The day after 16-year-old Yusef Hawkins was killed by a bat-wielding mob in Bensonhurst last summer, the boy's father, Moses Stewart, called Reverend Al. Stewart says he admired Sharpton's handling of the Brawley case.

"I wanted someone who was going to take my plight and scream for justice," Stewart says. "I didn't want anyone to come to me with a compromise. I wanted the world to know that my son was murdered because he was black. This is what Sharpton does. He brings it to the forefront."

But as Sharpton shoved himself into the forefront of the story, editors and news directors who felt they had been burned during the Tawana Brawley saga openly questioned whether they were being used. Some made a conscious effort to play down Sharpton's role, and New York Newsday went as far as cropping him out of pictures.

Paul Sagan, news director of WCBS-TV, says Sharpton often forced television to run pictures of him by linking arms with the Hawkins family. "I don't think he has a lot of credibility," Sagan says. "I don't think he's someone who knows whether or not the city is going to burn. He is willing to lie and he only speaks for a small group of followers."

James Toedtman, managing editor of New York Newsday, says the paper may have over-covered Sharpton in the past, but no more. "Al Sharpton for us is a roadblock," Toedtman says. In the Bensonhurst case, he says, "our judgment is that there was general public interest in the reaction of the parents to the death of this boy. But as anyone in the media knows, you couldn't talk to the parents without first talking to Al Sharpton."

On the damp May evening when Joey Fama was convicted of murdering Hawkins, Sharpton and Moses Stewart left the Brooklyn courthouse without a word. Sharpton later offered interviews to several television stations, but insisted that they include Maddox, Mason, Brawley and activist Sonny Carson. WCBS and WNBC refused; WNBC News Director Bret Marcus later called it "journalistic extortion." Fox News accepted the ground rules and interviewed Sharpton, Maddox, Mason and Stewart.

The next morning, Sharpton milked another news cycle by calling a news conference at the Cotton Club on 125th Street, where he stepped up his rhetoric, assailing Mayor David Dinkins as a "liberal hypocrite" who had "spit in the face of black people." When testy reporters asked whether Sharpton's burn-the-town-down prediction had been irresponsible, he drew widespread laughter by declaring: "A lot of these 'responsible' Negro leaders are going to be beating you to the bus station if a riot does break out."

After a second jury acquitted defendant Keith Mondello of murder that night, Sharpton led yet another march into Bensonhurst, prompting another outpouring of shouted racial obscenities and the waving of watermelons. He scored a clean media sweep, even making the front page of the Sunday New York Times.

Soon afterward, however, Sharpton realized that the publicity value of the case had peaked. His next march received little coverage. After a year of throwing fastballs, it was time to show the curve.

So Sharpton leaked word to the Daily News that he had accepted an invitation to sit down with Bensonhurst community leaders. He donned his clerical collar, went to Sunday Mass at a Bensonhurst church and offered an olive branch, saying he would call off the marches if neighborhood leaders would help search for new witnesses in the case.

"For the first time, people realized we can sit down and talk, and we did not have horns," Sharpton says. Besides, he says ominously, "there are more militant elements of the black community who don't want to deal with whites at all."

Al Sharpton sat motionless at the defense table as the testimony droned on, his larger-than-life frame cloaked in a black suit and polka-dot bow tie, the ever-present gold medallion dangling against his massive chest, his dark eyes darting around the high-ceilinged courtroom. Finally, his fraud and grand larceny trial was adjourned for the day.

After checking his schedule with an aide ("What do we got tomorrow? NBC? What time?"), Sharpton waited outside the lower Manhattan courthouse until another assistant pulled up in a maroon Chevy Lumina leased by his legal defense fund.

While Sharpton likes to boast that he owns no car or property and rents his $1,000-a-month Brooklyn apartment, many of his daily needs are met by his small organization -- once the National Youth Movement, now rechristened the United African Movement. Sharpton touted the youth movement as a charitable anti-drug group with 30,000 members in 16 cities. But Victor Genecin, the prosecutor in the fraud case, says it was "never anything more than a one-room office in Brooklyn with a telephone and an ever-changing handful of staffers who took Al Sharpton's messages and ran his errands."

As Sharpton walked toward the car, the black fabric of his pants was stretched to the limit. He knows his physical appearance is an irresistible target, but flaunts it anyway: the long, carefully permed hair, the double chin, the Fu Manchu mustache, the large hands, the huge belly protruding ominously over his belt buckle.

Even in the confined space of the back seat, Sharpton continued at full bellow, as if the resonance of his basso profundo might lend added authority to his words. Rasping his way through a cold, he dabbed at a runny nose with his handkerchief while holding forth in bombastic Brooklynese.

As the Lumina crawled over the Brooklyn Bridge, Sharpton fielded the question that always dogs him -- Whom do you represent, anyway? -- with a favorite rhetorical device, placing himself squarely in the tradition of Martin Luther King. "How did King establish his leadership? By marching, by putting people in the streets. Tell me when in the history of the civil rights movement the goal wasn't to stir things up," he said.

Putting people in the streets. Sharpton's all-purpose response to any conflict, from Howard Beach to Teaneck, is to summon the few hundred followers whom he calls his "black army." But while King's marches and boycotts were supported by mainstream black leaders, Sharpton is shunned by many prominent blacks, and his marchers agitate only for some vague notion of "justice" -- or, worse, for Sharpton's demands that prosecutors seek the indictments he wants or that juries return the verdicts he wants.

This confrontational style probably made inevitable his recent war of words with Mayor David Dinkins. The mayor's courtly, consensus-minded approach to politics fails to satisfy the most alienated segment of the black community, and Sharpton happily fills the vacuum. Dinkins, in turn, has taken to belittling his adversary. "Al Sharpton versus the mayor of the greatest urban center in the world?" Dinkins asked ABC News's Sam Donaldson on national television. "I mean, really, is that his stature?" That stung Reverend Al more than he lets on.

"Dinkins is willing to scream at Al Sharpton because he feels he will gain points in the white community," Sharpton says. "But he's not willing to scream at the ugliness in Bensonhurst because he's afraid he'll offend some people. It's a lot more difficult to take 500 people to Bensonhurst than to take 5,000 people to St. John the Divine for a nice little kiss-and-hold-hands rally at a church protected by police. Nobody has ever shown me how having unity rallies is going to lead to anything but good press for the mayor."

Sharpton draws much of his support from black newspapers. "One of the problems with black leadership in this city is it does not speak to the disaffected," says Andrew Cooper, publisher of the City Sun, a Brooklyn weekly. "Alfred does because he tells them what they want to hear, and that is, 'I am your champion. I know you're being dumped on, your children are being shot, the system pays absolutely no attention to you. The only way you'll get justice is to march in the streets and beat the drums and raise hell.' "

Former mayor Edward Koch, who once ridiculed him as "Al Charlatan," allows that Sharpton is "very smart and cunning, very engaging. There's no question that Al Sharpton is a charismatic figure. He is irresponsible, so he will say anything, he will do anything. But he has courage.

"I think he believes there is no justice except that, in the words of someone else, which comes out of the barrel of a gun, only he doesn't go that far. I have not seen any change in his approach: Take it to the streets and bring the country down."

That approach -- marching into hostile white enclaves -- is not without risk. During the fraud trial, police officials assigned Sharpton a full-time bodyguard because of threats on his life.

"You live under the constant threat of death," Sharpton says. "This is a lot more than the 6 o'clock news. You can get killed. That goes with the territory, but I think it's taken too lightly by the media. I ain't got no dreams of martyrdom."

Many black leaders flatly refuse to talk about Sharpton, who once picketed a meeting between city officials and prominent black activists with a sign accusing the other blacks of being "coons." One exception is U.S. Rep. Major Owens (D-N.Y.), whom Sharpton tried to challenge for the state Senate in 1978 until he was knocked off the ballot because he didn't live in the Brooklyn district. Owens calls Sharpton's demonstrations "a circus" that draws media coverage only because "he sells papers."

"He's trying to promote Al Sharpton," Owens says. "His history shows he has no principles. He goes with the wind. He's an opportunist and not to be trusted. To a lot of folks, he's an embarrassment.

"I don't think if Sharpton was in any other ethnic group he would be getting the kind of exposure he gets in the media," Owens says. "There are nuts all over the place."

The man once known as the "boy preacher" from Brownsville -- whose father abandoned the family when he was 10, forcing his mother to work as a cleaning woman and collect welfare checks -- grew up attaching himself to a series of father figures, from Adam Clayton Powell to Jesse Jackson to singer James Brown.

After dropping out of Brooklyn College, Sharpton combined his unpaid work as a professional provocateur with more lucrative entrepreneurial ventures, hooking up with boxing bigwig Don King and once winning a $500,000 contract to promote Michael Jackson after threatening to boycott a Jackson concert tour.

In 1983 he married Kathy Jordan, a former backup singer for James Brown and with whom he has had two daughters, ages 3 and 2. Jordan, who works for the U.S. Army, is the one who brings home the bacon while her husband is out getting himself arrested.

"People get paid a lot of money to do on Madison Avenue what I do in the ghetto for nothing," he says. "If I was downtown with a gray flannel suit, I'd be getting big contracts."

Sharpton gained national prominence with his intransigent tactics in the 1986 Howard Beach racial killing. But a year later, when he tried the same approach after latching on to 15-year-old Tawana Brawley, he seemed utterly out of control, likening the state attorney general to Adolf Hitler and demanding the arrest of Dutchess County officials without a shred of proof. Seven months after the Brawley case was exposed as a web of lies, Sharpton was charged with stealing $250,000 in charitable donations to the National Youth Movement and with evading $35,000 in taxes.

When Sharpton's fraud trial began in March, nearly 200 of his followers packed the hall outside the courtroom, demanding to be let in. Putting people in the streets. Sharpton insisted that the trial be moved to a larger room and the judge agreed, adjourning for the day. "They can't try me in a miniature courtroom, I'm not a miniature person. If they're going to lynch me, they're going to have to find the biggest tree," Sharpton boasted.

After his acquittal, Sharpton gleefully posed for photographers and again declared he is being persecuted for standing up for black people. He says he is not worried about facing a second trial on the tax evasion charge.

As the media descended on Atlantic City this week for the annual Miss America festivities, press releases were faxed to the nation's newsrooms saying that Sharpton would try to "shut down Atlantic City and its lucrative casinos because of deteriorating living conditions and the lack of cultural and/or recreational facilities for youth." It also quoted Sharpton, who has never previously expressed interest in the New Jersey resort, as declaring himself "shocked at the disparity between the boardwalk and the rest of the city."

Sharpton followed up Monday's arrest for inciting a riot and obstructing a public highway with a news conference yesterday, choosing as his backdrop the convention hall where the new national beauty will be selected. Sharpton said he was suing the mayor of Atlantic City for failing to invest casino revenues in poor minority neighborhoods. The reverend also announced that he and his supporters will "crown their own Miss America" at a "people's pageant" on the Boardwalk Saturday.

Film at 11.