Journalists are often in the business of cozying up to their sources.

It's a balancing act, of course, between the need to maintain access to high-level people and actually, how do you say, report the news.

From White House correspondents to Hollywood reporters, that's the challenge -- the bigger the hotshot, the more delicate the task.

When celebrities are involved, all kinds of corner-cutting compromises are quietly made. Stars are promised the magazine cover. They'll only work with certain photographers, or will nix writers who have been critical in the past. In extreme cases, a celeb might get to declare certain subjects (drug addiction, divorces) off limits or review the copy in advance.

In television, the trade-offs can be subtle. Anchors write letters promising fair (read "gentle") treatment to the potential newsmaker, even if he's as odious as the Unabomber or Son of Sam. A movie star or singer is given ample airtime to plug the new film/album/book in exchange for a few minutes of personal chit-chat.

The situation gets particularly delicate when the guest is in big trouble, whether it's Gary Condit stonewalling Connie Chung about Chandra Levy or Whitney Houston talking about her drug use with Diane Sawyer. But we have a right to expect that news divisions won't pull any punches just to obtain the coveted "get."

Sometimes, alas, they do.

Chicago Sun-Times columnist Robert Feder has unearthed a classic example of kowtowing to a source. Best of all, it's in writing from the local Fox station:

"Ever see a fox roll over and play dead? If you watch WFLD-Channel 32's coverage of R. Kelly and the child pornography charges against him, that's just what you might be seeing.

"In a bid to maintain 'exclusive access' to the singer, an executive at the Fox-owned station ordered news staffers to treat Kelly with 'particular care.' An internal memo, obtained by this column, set forth specific guidelines to avoid portraying Kelly too harshly.

"Kelly, who is awaiting trial on 21 counts of child pornography in Chicago, was arrested in Florida Wednesday on additional charges.

"Longstanding suspicions of cozy ties between Channel 32 and Kelly were all but confirmed in a memo from management, dated Jan. 10. Here is the memo in its entirety:

"'FYI, we are trying to get exclusive access to R. Kelly before, during and after his upcoming trial. While we try to treat all defendants fairly, it would behoove us to take particular care in our reporting of Kelly in stories we do about him leading up to the trial. Please follow these guidelines:

"* When referring to the alleged victim .{sbquo}.{sbquo}. do not specify an age .{sbquo}.{sbquo}. she is simply 'underaged.'

"* Do not use video of him in orange jumpsuit .{sbquo}.{sbquo}. unless specifically referring to his arrest [last June] in Florida.

"* Be judicious in mentioning the trial in stories about Kelly that are unrelated to his legal situation .{sbquo}.{sbquo}. i.e., don't let it be the lead.'

"Debra Juarez, vice president of news at Channel 32, said Wednesday that the memo had been written without her knowledge by an executive producer, in response to pressure from Robin Robinson, the station's senior news anchor, about coverage of Kelly. 'The original memo was issued without my consent and incorrectly characterized how we should cover the R. Kelly story,' Juarez said. 'When this memo was brought to my attention, I immediately took steps to clarify it.' .{sbquo}.{sbquo}.

"Up to now, Channel 32 has enjoyed unusual access to Kelly, thanks in part to his friendship with Robinson. The two share the services of the same business manager, Darryl McDavid. When Kelly was about to be indicted last spring, Robinson was the only local reporter to whom he granted an interview."

Can't be jeopardizing that with those orange-jumpsuit pictures.

The poll-a-day media week continues, this time with the New York Times:

"President Bush's public support has eroded steadily over the last 12 months, with a rising number of Americans expressing discontent both with his economic policies and his handling of foreign affairs, the latest New York Times/CBS News poll shows.

"The poll, taken at the midpoint of Mr. Bush's term as he prepares to deliver his second State of the Union address on Tuesday, found that 59 percent of Americans approve the way he is performing his job. .{sbquo}.{sbquo}.

"There were some encouraging findings for Mr. Bush. Two-thirds of respondents were optimistic about the next two years under Mr. Bush. And 4 in 10 said the nation would be in better condition five years from now.

"Still, the survey turned up many points of potential concern -- some reminiscent of the problems with the economy that his father encountered 12 years ago -- as Mr. Bush prepares for the campaign ahead.

"Even as Mr. Bush has turned most of his attention to preparing the country for a war against Saddam Hussein, Americans said they were twice as concerned about the economy as they were about either a pending war in Iraq or the war on terrorism."

Of course, as the Times noted, 59 percent is still pretty darn good -- especially with an anemic economy.

The days when the Democrats were hugging the president on foreign policy and challenging him domestically are over, if John Kerry's latest move is any indication:

"In a sweeping critique of President Bush's foreign policy, Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., yesterday charged that the administration was moving too quickly toward war in Iraq and had not yet built sufficient support at home or abroad for military action," says the Los Angeles Times.

"'Mr. President: do not rush to war,' said Kerry, whose speech marked him as the most skeptical about war of the top tier contenders for the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination.

"While calling for the United Nations to intensify pressure on Iraq to disarm, Kerry urged Bush to give more time to the U.N. inspections process that the administration has increasingly condemned as inadequate. .{sbquo}.{sbquo}.

"The complexity, and shifting nuance, of Kerry's message on Iraq may reflect the delicacy of his political situation. He faces a Democratic primary electorate increasingly dubious of a war. But many Democratic strategists believe that any candidate who overtly opposes a Bush move against Iraq could damage their credentials as a potential commander-in-chief for the general election if a war turns out well.",0,838493.story?coll=la%2Dhome%2Dheadlines

The New Republic's Ryan Lizza says no Democrats distinguished themselves at the abortion pander-fest the other night:

"There is a weird respect among Washington journalists for presidential candidates who come before their most loyal supporters and insult them. In 1992, candidate Bill Clinton spoke before a black audience at a meeting of Jesse Jackson's Rainbow Coalition. Rapper Sister Souljah, who had spoken to the group the evening before, had recently told The Washington Post that blacks would be justified in killing whites. Clinton criticized her for those comments, angering his audience and insulting Jackson. The move cemented Clinton's reputation as a centrist Democrat who was not held hostage to his party's interest groups. The media cheered, and the phrase 'Sister Souljah moment' was born.

"In subsequent campaigns, George W. Bush won praise when he criticized House Republicans for trying to 'balance their budget on the backs of the poor,' while pundits swooned for John McCain when he said his party was bought and paid for by corporate special interests.

"So when the six Democratic presidential candidates spoke before a core Democratic interest group, NARAL Pro-Choice America, Tuesday night, one question that hung in the air of the Omni Shoreham ballroom was, which Democrat would 'Sister Souljah' NARAL? The answer was nobody. Prior to the event there was some whispering that Dick Gephardt might try to burnish his general election bona fides by criticizing partial-birth abortion, but it didn't happen.

"As an aide to one candidate explained, the NARAL event was 'box-checking.' There remains an iron triangle of Democratic constituencies--blacks, labor, pro-choice women--whom every candidate must appease during the primaries. Tuesday night, the six Democrats dutifully checked the abortion box."

Sharpton and Dean generated the most excitement, says Lizza.

Another bit of box-checking sometimes involves erasing previous answers, the Boston Globe reports:

"John F. Kerry and Joseph I. Lieberman, New England senators running for president, scored political points over the Martin Luther King holiday weekend by criticizing President Bush for opposing affirmative action in student admissions at the University of Michigan.

"But in the 1990s each senator raised serious questions of his own about affirmative action, stands that have prompted concern from minority leaders and civil liberties activists about just how strongly the two presidential contenders support a policy widely embraced by blacks and Latinos, both large constituencies in the Democratic primaries."

Another potential candidate has hit an unfortunate detour, the Orlando Sentinel reports:

"On the verge of announcing he would run for president, Sen. Bob Graham yesterday abruptly shelved those plans for at least a month after his doctors called for open-heart surgery to replace a potentially life-threatening defective valve.

"Graham had planned to launch his presidential campaign on Feb. 3 in Tallahassee, where he served eight years as governor before entering the Senate. Instead, he will have surgery that week at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md. 'I would rather be on an airplane to Des Moines than going to Bethesda,' Graham said, adding that his doctors gave him little choice.",0,302427.story?coll=orl%2Dhome%2Dheadlines

After our piece yesterday on Gary Hart's attempted comeback, here's another clue to how he is handling his past baggage:

"Gary Hart expects to be the butt of Leno and Letterman monologues if he decides to seek his party's presidential nomination, some 15 years after his last bid ended with an infamous picture on a boat called 'Monkey Business,'" the Des Moines Register reports.

"But Hart said a likely war in Iraq will bring an end to any laughter.

"'Go ahead, bang away, show the picture, have your fun. I'm prepared for that,' the Democrat said Wednesday in Des Moines. 'Then let's move on, because when our sons and daughters are dying overseas, really how many times can you laugh?'" Not bad.

National Review's Byron York wonders why the press doesn't focus on the "commies" against the war:

"The protest was put together by a group called International ANSWER, which stands for Act Now to Stop War and End Racism. ANSWER is an outgrowth of another group called the International Action Center, a San Francisco-based organization that showcases the work of Ramsey Clark, the Johnson administration attorney general who has specialized in anti-American causes.

"Both ANSWER and the International Action Center are closely allied with a small but energetic Marxist-Leninist organization known as the Workers World Party, which in its turbulent history has supported the Soviet interventions in Hungary and Czechoslovakia, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and the Chinese government's crackdown in Tiananmen Square. Today, the WWP devotes much of its energy to supporting the regimes in Iraq and North Korea.

"At the demonstration, which many media reports portrayed as a gathering of mainstream Americans, speaker after speaker condemned the United States with ancient Communist rhetoric: 'revolution,' 'struggle,' 'oppressed peoples,' 'imperialism,' and 'liberation.' One speaker even addressed her fellow protesters as 'comrades.' Given the impressive strength of the public-address system, it felt like a literal blast from the past. And if the subject had not been so serious, it might have seemed almost quaint.

"But the demonstration's organizers, perhaps unwittingly, made a very serious point: More than a decade after the fall of the Soviet Union, and long after most Americans stopped worrying about the Red Menace, a significant part of the movement that has risen up in opposition to war in Iraq is, in essence, a Communist front.

"Perhaps the most visible face of the demonstration was its co-director and chief spokesman, Brian Becker. Becker got a lot of exposure in the days leading up to the rally; he was quoted in newspaper articles, appeared on TV, and did radio interviews to promote the event. A member of the secretariat of the Workers World Party -- and called by some the party's house intellectual -- Becker is a contributor to the party's newspaper, Workers World, as well as a top official of International ANSWER and the International Action Center.

"There is an almost central-casting quality to Becker's Communism. For example, in a December 2000 address to the Workers World Party conference in New York, Becker began by discussing issues raised by 'comrades' who had recently been to Cuba and then launched into a detailed and impassioned analysis of Marxism and revolution. Becker stressed that the Workers World Party had 'supported the Soviet Union against imperialism and domestic counter-revolution.' He praised the Soviets for having 'sent invaluable aid to Vietnam, Cuba, the African National Congress in South Africa, and other national-liberation movements.' He railed against 'U.S. imperialism.'"

Andrew Sullivan goes ballistic over the presidential appointment of one Jerry Thacker:

"What on earth is a fire-breathing, Bob Jones University alum doing on the presidential commission on AIDS? Check out this man's views here as noted in the Washington Post. AIDS is a 'gay plague.' With the overwhelming number of victims worldwide being straight, and a majority of new HIV cases in America non-gay ones? 'Homosexuality is not inborn biologically, just as incest and bestiality are not inborn.'

"Is the Bush administration equating gay citizens with people who practice incest? Is it saying that the vice-president's daughter's relationship is as immoral or as arbitrary as having sex with animals? Is it asserting, against every serious psychological study, that homosexuality is chosen like becoming a dentist? If it is, then please let us know and we can think and vote accordingly. If it isn't, then what is an extremist like Jerry Thacker doing advising the president on AIDS?

"This isn't a legitimate conservative voice. The man was at Bob Jones for seven years, for Heaven's sake. They appointed him how long after the Lott affair?"

Thacker's appointment lasted mere minutes after The Post's Ceci Connolly reported his views:

"Jerry Thacker, a Christian activist who has described AIDS as the 'gay plague,' withdrew from the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV and AIDS yesterday amid criticism of his appointment from the White House, congressional Democrats and gay activists.

"After contracting the AIDS virus in 1986, Thacker began writing and speaking extensively on the disease and the 'sin of homosexuality,' which he dubbed a 'deathstyle.'

"White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said President Bush did not endorse Thacker's statements and that the Pennsylvania consultant would not be a member of the 35-person panel. 'The president has a totally opposite view,' Fleischer said. 'That remark is far removed from what the president believes.' .{sbquo}.{sbquo}.

Thacker sent a letter to Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson saying he was withdrawing because of concern 'about my ability to be effective with the council given the current controversy.'

"White House aides blamed the Thacker controversy on HHS. Thompson said he was unaware of the selection. Looks like somebody didn't spend two minutes vetting this guy.

Not many folks seem outraged by the House GOP's latest maneuver, but Salon's Arianna Huffington is appalled:

"It just got a little easier for special interests to screw the public -- courtesy of the public's own representatives in Washington, who saw fit to kick-start the 108th Congress by gutting a pair of pesky ethics rules designed to reduce the amount of influence-peddling on Capitol Hill.

"Despite the soaring deficit and unemployment rates, our leaders decided that the most pressing order of business was loading up the congressional gift bags -- you know, the party favors they get just for showing up -- with even more goodies and tempting morsels.

"Thanks to Denny Hastert and his pals in the House Republican leadership, lobbyists will now be able to pick up the tab for House members whenever the lawmakers attend charitable events, including golf outings and those all-important policy retreats held at lavish resorts. The new rules, which are hardly worthy of the term since it connotes constraint or restriction, also increase the amount lobbyists can spend to feed congressional staffers a yummy catered meal when they are working late.

"This late-night catering is a time-honored tradition among corporate lobbyists looking to suck up to the folks doing the heavy lifting on legislation affecting their clients. Think of it as Meals for Deals."

Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.