If you put the First Amendment up for a nationwide vote, we're not so sure it would pass.

The press isn't real popular these days, with journalists often viewed as arrogant and rude, and as heartless as the killer sharks they sometimes hype during slow summer weeks.

And when war breaks out, many folks believe that the people with pens and microphones should just get out of the way and let the soldiers do their jobs.

Never mind that the fourth estate provides a valuable check on administrations that try to stage-manage the news and claim that everything is just hunky-dory. Never mind that some information released by the Pentagon invariably turns out to be wrong, especially when smart bombs turn out to be dumb enough to hit the wrong targets. Never mind that media scrutiny has a way of keeping government officials honest.

If we go to war against Iraq -- which seems more likely after yesterday's discovery of empty chemical warheads -- many readers and viewers are going to regard critical stories as unpatriotic.

Which is why a new poll on the media and the military is downright sobering, at least from a journalistic point of view.

Here's our report:

Two-thirds of the public believes the government should have the right to stop the media from disclosing military secrets, says an ABC News poll released yesterday.

Fifty-six percent of those surveyed also say news organizations are more obliged to support the government in wartime than to question the military's handling of the war.

The poll, done for a "Nightline" town meeting airing tonight, reflects the widespread view that press freedoms, including the First Amendment's ban on prior restraint, should give way to Pentagon preferences in wartime. The findings, which mirror those during the Persian Gulf War, come at a time of widespread leaks about the Bush administration's plans for a possible war with Iraq.

Such findings could bolster the administration's efforts to tightly restrict the flow of information about the showdown with Iraq. "Whether the public supports everything the press does, it is our free press that distinguishes us from any other country on the planet," said John McWethy, ABC's Pentagon correspondent. "In time of war, it gets a heck of a lot tougher for reporters to do their jobs. There are more restrictions, especially with this administration, on difficult-to-find information."

Pentagon spokeswoman Torie Clarke said she doesn't see a conflict between military secrecy and robust coverage, which her department hopes to provide by assigning reporters to travel with combat units.

"Information about military operations can do grave damage to the mission and put people's lives at risk," Clarke said. "I think the press understands the need for operational secrecy and not putting people's lives at risk."

Overall, the ABC poll says, six in 10 Americans say the government's ability to keep wartime secrets in more important than a free press, while 34 percent disagreed. Even in peacetime, 28 percent say the government should have the right to control what information the media report.

But journalists received high marks for their coverage of the current buildup against Baghdad. Thirteen percent say the media have been too supportive of the Bush administration, 17 percent say they have been too critical and 61 percent say "about right."

The findings break down along partisan lines. While 65 percent of Republicans say the government's ability to keep wartime secrets is essential, only 47 percent of independents and 38 percent of Democrats agree. Similarly, 44 percent of Republicans say the media should be more questioning than supportive of goverment, compared to 60 percent of independents and 67 percent of Democrats.

A war with Iraq seemed to inch just a bit closer, as the New York Times reports:

"United Nations weapons inspectors discovered 11 empty chemical warheads today at an ammunition storage depot in southern Iraq, while another team entered the homes of two Iraqi scientists unannounced, carting away documents. . . .

"Experts on the arms team, as well as intelligence analysts in Washington and other capitals, rushed to determine whether the warheads had been listed in the voluminous weapons declaration Baghdad presented to the United Nations in December. . . .

"Lt. Gen. Hussam Muhammad Amin, the top Iraqi liaison to the weapons teams, expressed 'astonishment' over the hubbub about the warheads, saying they were short-range shells imported in the late 1980's. He insisted that they were registered in the declaration."

http://www.nytimes.com/2003/01/17/international/middleeast/17IRAQ.html

We're sure he is truly astonished.

The prez was on the road yesterday for what one unnamed aide has dubbed "whack-John-Edwards" day (given Edwards's previous incarnation as a trial lawyer):

"President Bush called on Congress yesterday to impose stringent restrictions on medical malpractice lawsuits as a step toward curtailing escalating health-care costs, a key goal in his domestic agenda," the Los Angeles Times says.

"'Excessive jury awards will continue to drive up insurance costs, will put good doctors out of business or run them out of your community,' Bush told health-care professionals and administrators at the University of Scranton.

"Before his speech, the president visited a hospital affiliated with a medical center in nearby Wilkes-Barre that on Monday settled a $7 million lawsuit stemming from the death of a 72-year-old patient who suffered irreversible brain damage after a breathing tube was improperly inserted.

"Under the president's plan, damages in such cases would be limited to $250,000. Critics of the proposal argue that a cap on compensation for a patient's 'pain and suffering' would be unfair and allow poor medical practice to go unpunished."

But Dems say he's simply helping out insurance companies. "Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., already has threatened to fight the president's proposal with a filibuster, if necessary."

http://www.latimes.com/news/nationworld/nation/la-011603malpractice_wr,0,7059826.story?coll=la%2Dhome%2Dheadlines

By the way, is there any unindicted Democrat out there who's not running for president, or at least talking about it?

"In a phone call yesterday," reports the Chicago Tribune, "former Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun of Illinois told Democratic Party Chairman Terry McAuliffe she is taking her eye off another Senate bid so she can focus on a bigger prize: exploring a run for president.

"Leading Democrats here said they were not discouraging the ambitious move because the party must improve its appeal to African-Americans and women. A national campaign by Moseley-Braun also could dilute the presidential candidacy of civil rights activist Al Sharpton, whom many party officials view as a wild card."

http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/nationworld/chi-0301170391jan17,1,4797818.story?coll=chi%2Dnewsnationworld%2Dhed

We guess losing your Senate seat is now a springboard for higher office. Who knew?

The administration filed that affirmative-action brief shortly before a midnight deadline, and The Washington Post finds a key behind-the-scenes player:

"National security adviser Condoleezza Rice took a rare central role in a domestic debate within the White House and helped persuade President Bush to publicly condemn race-conscious admissions policies at the University of Michigan, administration officials said yesterday.

"The officials said Rice, in a series of lengthy one-on-one meetings with Bush, drew on her experience as provost at Stanford University to help convince him that favoring minorities was not an effective way of improving diversity on college campuses."

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A3752-2003Jan16.html

The friend-of-the-court brief didn't go quite as far as some conservatives wanted, as this L.A. Times story suggests:

"By weighing in strongly against race-based policies, the Bush administration puts more pressure on the justices -- or perhaps gives them more encouragement -- to hand down a broad ruling that rejects them.

"While Olson's briefs do not call on the court to overrule the 1978 Bakke decision, which struck down quotas but upheld the use of race as a factor in admissions policies, they go a long way to pushing it aside.

"Since 'race-neutral alternatives' can always be envisioned, the administration contends, universities would be hard-pressed to defend the explicit use of affirmative action."

http://www.latimes.com/news/nationworld/nation/la-na-college17jan17,0,3461015.story?coll=la%2Dhome%2Dheadlines

Salon's Joe Conason is riled over one past case of affirmative action:

"Our text for this morning after the president's denunciation of affirmative action at the University of Michigan can be found on Pages 21-22 of 'A Charge to Keep,' the George W. Bush autobiography (written by Karen Hughes):

"'Andover taught me the power of high standards. I was surrounded by people who were very smart, and that encouraged me to rise to the occasion. I was a solid student but not a top student. I did well in the courses I liked, such as history, math, and Spanish, and not so well in others, such as English. When I met with the dean to discuss different college options, I told him I would like to go to Yale. Many in my family had gone there; they loved the school and their love was infectious. On several weekends I had visited Yale to watch football games, and I was impressed by the campus. The dean tactfully suggested that I might think of other universities as well.

"I told him that if I did not get into Yale, there was only one other option for me, the University of Texas. I was not sure what would happen. I looked forward to either alternative. It was chaos in the mailroom the day the college acceptance letters arrived. The fat envelopes brought good news, the skinny ones rejection letters. I received a fat envelope from Yale and so did thirty-eight of my Andover classmates.'

"Let's examine a couple of key phrases in that uplifting passage. 'I was a solid student but not a top student. . . . The dean tactfully suggested that I might think of other universities as well.' It sounds as if Bush was pretty confident of attending Yale despite his so-so prep school transcript."

http://salon.com/opinion/conason/2003/01/16/bush/index.html

Maybe Yale just had a great eye for talent.

It's just a hunch, but the Hill seems to be heading into trouble on the spending front:

"Seeking to fend off bigger Democratic demands, the new Republican-controlled Senate endorsed $5 billion more in federal aid to public-school districts -- to be paid for by across-the-board cuts in other domestic programs," says the Wall Street Journal.

"The 52-45 vote last night helped derail a proposal by Sen. Edward Kennedy (D., Mass.) to add $6 billion directly -- without offsets -- to an omnibus spending bill needed to fund most government agencies for the fiscal year ending Sept. 30. But the Republican strategy could come to haunt the party leadership, if it raises expectations at the local level and then must back down because of difficulty in implementing the offsetting cuts.

"Republican leaders already are committed to a 1.6% across-the-board cut to help pay for farm aid and efforts to improve state and local elections operations. The education amendment would boost the cuts needed to 2.9% -- and could pose a huge problem for House and Senate Appropriations committees when they reconcile all the numbers."

Especially if they hand out more huge tax cuts.

Josh Marshall has lost patience with the vice president of the United States:

"Just how much evidence do we need? How much evidence that pretty much every miscue and goof that comes out of the Bush White House will sooner or later be found to have Dick Cheney's fingerprints all over it?

"The White House is now taking hits on two fronts -- hits which, by most accounts are the driving factors behind the president's slipping job approval numbers. One of those hits is over the North Korea crisis, the other is tied to the increasingly negative reaction to president's stimulus package.

"As we've noted earlier, the policy of confrontation on the Korean Peninsula, which the administration is now running away from and which has gotten the U.S. into such a jam, was most forcefully backed by Cheney.

"There is also a growing consensus that the president's new stimulus/tax cut plan is a loser both politically and in policy terms. Democratic opposition is to be expected, certainly, though perhaps not unanimous opposition. But the president's real problem is deteriorating support among Senate Republicans. Public support is tepid at best. . . . Not surprisingly, the prime mover, as Major Garrett reports in the current issue of the Weekly Standard, was none other than Dick Cheney.

"In spite of all the evidence most Beltway chatterers still insist on seeing Cheney as the White House's shrewdest political hand. But they don't know Dick. Someday someone is going to put together an article cataloging just how many screw-ups Dick Cheney has been responsible for in the last two years."

http://talkingpointsmemo.com/

And here Marshall shrewdly links to a Washington Monthly piece by . . . Josh Marshall.

http://www.washingtonmonthly.com/features/2001/0301.marshall.html

InstaPundit Glenn Reynolds has some thoughts on our recent column suggesting that presidential candidates have to be pretty weird to put themselves through the media's meat grinder:

"And since, as most people . . . would agree, being president is a job no sane person could really love for eight years then what does that say about our Presidential selection system? Is it selecting for kooks?

"Certainly a lot of our Presidents have been, er, mentally less than admirable: Kennedy, with his risk-taking and narcissism, LBJ with his megalomania, bullying and, well, LBJ-ness, Nixon with his paranoia, depression and obsessive-compulsiveness, Clinton with his narcissism, sexual compulsiveness, and compulsive lying. Carter was/is clearly sane. . . . Ditto for Papa Bush.

"Reagan is a tougher question: he certainly wasn't crazy. And as an actor, I suppose he was able to play the President in a way that made the experience more enjoyable for him than it would be for many others. (Yes, I know, there's some reason to think that his mental faculties were already beginning to fail before he left office -- but I don't think that's the same as the sort of personality-disordered thing that Nixon, Clinton, etc. had going on) . . . .

"Hmm. Here's a slogan for '04, for whatever candidate wants it: ' ______ in '04: JUST CRAZY ENOUGH TO WANT TO BE YOUR PRESIDENT!'"

http://64.247.33.250/

It was not a great time for NPR in Beantown, reports the Boston Globe's Mark Jurkowitz:

"The body language said it all.

"Sitting together on one side of the stage, leaning into the microphone, were the fiery prosecutors -- Philadelphia Jewish Exponent executive editor Jonathan Tobin and Boston University journalism department chairman Bob Zelnick. Seated on the other side, seeming to sag in their seats, were the wary defendants -- WBUR-FM general manager Jane Christo and National Public Radio president Kevin Klose.

"The near-capacity crowd of about 900 who gathered at Boston's Temple Israel on Monday night for a debate on Middle East media coverage (mostly NPR's coverage) sided largely with the prosecutors. Staunch supporters of Israel, they applauded loudly when Zelnick or Tobin assailed what they saw as anti-Israel bias or shoddiness in public radio's reporting of the Palestinian-Israeli bloodshed.

"Yes, Christo and Klose, the latter up from Washington, faced an uphill battle. But rather than wage one, they opted for a kind of patronizing surrender that can only dishearten their allies and invigorate their critics.

"The tone of the discussion was set early. While Christo and Klose used their opening remarks to deliver a dispassionate, droning primer on the basic functions of their organizations -- call it NPR and WBUR for dummies -- their rivals came out charging.

"'We are here because the events of the last few years have changed the discussion in the Jewish community . . . about news reporting from Israel,' Tobin declared. 'It's about Israel's survival. . . . We have a right to ask why NPR operates the way it does.' The crowd cheered."

http://www.boston.com/dailyglobe2/015/living/NPR_is_losing_war_of_words_on_Mideast_coverage+.shtml

Finally, only the Big Apple has trials like this:

"Leona Helmsley fired her chief of operations after learning he was homosexual -- then vowed she'd pink-slip her hotel's gay general manager, her former bodyguard testified yesterday," the New York Post reports.

"And speaking of pink 'slips,' she also told him that the operations head -- her paramour until she discovered he was gay -- had worn her undies, the guard said.

"'I got rid of one fag. I want to get rid of the other,' Andrew Martinez quoted the so-called Queen of Mean as saying.

"Martinez was testifying on behalf of Charles Bell, who's suing Helmsley for $40 million. Bell charges Helmsley fired him as general manager of her Park Lane Hotel after she discovered he was gay."

http://www.nypost.com/news/regionalnews/53304.htm

What a lovely lady.