Col. Bill Mulvey, the military man responsible for the care and feeding of 800 reporters in Saudi Arabia, had a rather unpleasant discussion last week with R.W. Apple Jr. of the New York Times.

As Mulvey recalls it, Apple "said he'd be sure my career would be ruined and I would be fired." Apple said he could accomplish this feat because he would be sitting next to Defense Secretary Dick Cheney at next month's Gridiron Dinner in Washington, according to Mulvey.

Apple, who is running the Times' Dhahran bureau, "was very abusive... . He said I had used everything in my power to favor his competition and keep the New York Times from covering the war, which is untrue... . He berated me. ... I've never seen him before or since."

What prompted their tete-a-tete, which first surfaced in a Wall Street Journal item, was Apple's complaint that the combat pool to which a Times reporter is assigned has been idle for weeks, leaving "one of the major newspapers in the United States" with "no correspondent in the field."

"I did say I was going to take this up with General {Norman} Schwarzkopf," Apple says. "I was extremely angry. I told him Cheney was an old friend of mine, and a sufficiently good friend that he's my guest at the Gridiron. I did not say he'd be sitting next to me, because I don't expect to be at the Gridiron."

That wasn't the end of it. In a story Monday about how the Pentagon deals with the press, Apple wrote that Mulvey had "lost the confidence of the press corps."

"I was quite heated with him and he was quite heated with me," Apple says. "This kind of slugfest was quite common in Vietnam. I find it modestly amusing that this should become a cause ce'le`bre."

Baltimore Blues

Is the Sun starting to set in Baltimore?

After years of declining circulation, staffers at the Evening Sun are buzzing about two management moves that many believe threaten the paper's identity, if not its existence. While both the morning and evening Sun are owned by the Times Mirror Co., the papers compete with separate editorial and advertising staffs. The overlap in readership is only about 12 percent.

Publisher Michael J. Davies put out a memo last week saying that he supports a management committee's suggestion that the papers be divided into seven zoned editions, aimed primarily at the suburbs. "In all probability, part or all of the metro staffs of the Sun and the Evening Sun would be merged," along with the suburban staffs, he wrote.

Days later, John Carroll, editor of the Lexington, Ky., Herald-Leader, was named editor and senior vice president of the morning and evening Suns -- the first time one editor has overseen both papers in decades.

Would the papers be the same without rival reporters going head to head at City Hall or Annapolis?

"It would be hard to adjust, working side by side with people you're used to scooping or getting scooped by," says Joan Jacobson, an Evening Sun feature writer and chairman of the local Newspaper Guild unit.

"I guess you could make yourself more profitable by making it one fat newspaper and laying off 100 or 200 people ... but there's still an audience here for an afternoon paper," says Evening Sun columnist Dan Rodricks. He describes the Evening Sun as "an aggressive, intensely local hometown newspaper, better written than the morning Sun, more fun to read, less reverent."

Davies insists the plan remains "hypothetical" and would not involve layoffs. But with one metro staff, he says, "we could increase our coverage geometrically. We now have as many as six people at a given meeting... . The financial health and well-being of the newspaper will be determined by how well we do in the suburbs."

Going Upscale

The Philadelphia Daily News, undergoing a redesign and raising its price from 35 to 50 cents, will offer a new "themed" feature section to be called "Yo!"

Debating Dioxin

At first it looked like a classic case of contradiction:

"High Dioxin Levels Linked to Cancer," said the New York Times.

"Extensive Study Finds Reduced Dioxin Danger," said The Washington Post.

But the stories differed more in emphasis than in fact. The Times' Warren E. Leary said the federal study suggests that the chemical dioxin, while causing cancer in people exposed at high levels, "may not pose a substantial risk of cancer at lower levels."

The Post's Malcolm Gladwell stressed that dioxin "appears to be less dangerous than previously thought," citing "a 'slight' excess cancer risk only among workers with dioxin levels ... 500 times higher than normal."

The environmental group Greenpeace fired off a letter accusing The Post of "inaccurate and irresponsible reporting" and saying Gladwell "appears to have fallen victim to industry 'spin control.' "

Says Gladwell: "There was no other way to frame the story... . The only way someone could complain about my story is if they hadn't read the study or don't take scientific data into account when they form an opinion about dioxin."

Marilyn Fingerhut, who directed the study, questions some details in the Post story, but says: "I don't think it was irresponsible... . It is reasonable to assume that people with much lower exposures would have lower risks."

Greenpeace complained that the only scientist quoted by Gladwell is a paid consultant to the Chlorine Institute, an affiliation not noted in the Post story. Chlorine bleaching is a source of dioxin formation. Gladwell says the industry connection was not relevant because he interviewed several dioxin experts and "they all said roughly the same thing."

A Greenpeace fund-raising letter last fall dramatized the chemical's dangers ("Incredibly, scientists today are comparing the toxicity of dioxin with radioactive plutonium!"), but spokesman Peter Dykstra says the group has battled dioxin for years. He charges that The Post plays up "any story or study that tends to go against a line espoused by environmentalists."

Post science editor Boyce Rensberger responds that if a story "happens to challenge something that's dear to the heart of environmentalists, we're not going to suppress it for that reason. We've also done a number of stories that most environmentalists would see as pro-environment."

A Question of Taste

Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist Paul Conrad says he thought his sketch of Saddam Hussein was "hilarious," but his editors at the Los Angeles Times thought it was in bad taste. They killed his drawing of the Iraqi leader flashing his naked backside at a map of the Middle East. "The military has been talking about dark nights for bombing Baghdad and I thought, 'Well, here's a full moon,' " Conrad says. Still, he says, "I decided I didn't have to go to the mat on that one."