"NewsHour With Jim Lehrer" was at the top of its game during the war in Yugoslavia. The program's sober, comprehensive approach was on display throughout the conflict, capped by a postwar sit-down with President Clinton. The "NewsHour" folks are even trying to extend the franchise by launching an 11 p.m. national newscast.

But the cold, hard numbers tell a different story. According to an analysis by PBS Research, "NewsHour" ratings have dropped by 20 percent over the last three seasons. As noted by Columbia Journalism Review, the program's average Nielsen number, as high as 2.0 in 1992-93, declined from 1.5 in 1995-96 to 1.2 in 1997-98--or just over a million households.

So what gives? Is this some sort of collective judgment by an American public that says it wants serious news but secretly prefers scandal and sleaze? Or does it simply reflect a wider boredom with traditional news?

"I wish our audience was larger than it is, but it's not something that worries me," Lehrer says. "I think we've done well in light of the competitive situation. We're very comfortable with what we do." But, he says, "we have failed to tell our message very well."

Toward that end, Lehrer hopes to mount a major ad campaign to bang the drum for his program. "We've always been reluctant to spend our hard-earned money on advertising and promotion," he says. "That's not our style." Lehrer wants a separate underwriter to fund the ad blitz, an idea he says others find "weird."

When the war began, Lehrer says, he told his staff, "There's no such thing as excess on this story. This matters every way you want to define it." (Not surprisingly, "NewsHour" took a far more restrained approach on that little Monica Lewinsky matter.)

As the assault on the Serbs dragged on, some news outlets began to lose interest. But Lehrer continued to devote at least half of his hour-long program to Kosovo. The "NewsHour" interviewed Secretary of State Madeleine Albright three times, national security adviser Sandy Berger four times, Defense Secretary William Cohen twice and Yugoslav Ambassador to the U.N. Vladislav Jovanovic twice, as well as the likes of British Prime Minister Tony Blair and NATO commander Gen. Wesley Clark.

While the nearly 25-year-old program can be a snooze when boring guests drone on, it has been modernizing on several fronts. Lehrer has added a media unit, anchored by former CBS correspondent Terence Smith, and a health unit, run by former U.S. News & World Report columnist Susan Dentzer. The "NewsHour" plans to feature Washington Post reporters regularly for campaign coverage. There are even occasional appearances by Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky.

Dan Werner, president of MacNeil/Lehrer Productions, says he's excited about plans for the 11 p.m. newscast, which he calls "a wonderful opportunity for public television." The show would be a "hard news" broadcast, anchored by someone other than Lehrer and designed to compete with crime-heavy local newscasts. Partners in the effort include the New York Times, New York's WNET and Washington's WETA.

But Werner is quick to admit that the program won't materialize unless he can raise millions of dollars from underwriters. Only a dozen PBS stations have signed up so far. As for "NewsHour," Werner says other newscasts have lost audience as well and that the program is back to a 1.5 rating in the top 10 markets.

"You can't pander to trying to hold the audience every time it's tabulated," Werner says. "You have to let the story dictate how you cover it. There may be a price to be paid for that."

Shadow Boxing

A former White House lawyer featured in Bob Woodward's book "Shadow" is challenging what he reported and how he reported it.

Ex-special counsel Jane Sherburne says she told Hillary Rodham Clinton in an apology letter that "the dialogue was made up" in an emotional scene involving her and a sobbing first lady anguished over whether the Whitewater scandal was hurting Clinton's friends. Sherburne says she told Clinton "that my intentions were good, my judgment to believe in Woodward's professionalism was not."

Sherburne made the comments in a deposition by Judicial Watch, a conservative group that is suing the Clinton administration. She said she had spoken twice with Woodward, partly off the record and partly on background, or not for attribution. Sherburne said Woodward called her about two weeks ago and told her he had "triangulated" the dialogue by getting it from at least two other sources and that he "decided to go ahead and put it in my mouth."

Woodward, a Washington Post editor, called Sherburne's account "false," saying: "The idea I would say to someone, 'I'm going to put it in your mouth' is absurd, absolutely, patently absurd. I stand by what's in the book. . . . It's very carefully done."

Woodward said Sherburne expressed no unhappiness when she called him last week, and that he's happy to release their taped interviews with her permission. He said he confirmed some of Sherburne's account elsewhere, such as getting an on-the-record description from the White House usher of a search that he and Sherburne conducted of the Clintons' residence.

Former White House spokesman Mike McCurry also took issue with Woodward on "Larry King Live." Asked about the depiction of a conversation in which the first lady spoke of feeling "lonely," "exasperated" and "humiliated" after the Monica Lewinsky affair, McCurry said that "if I left Bob Woodward with that impression that I was giving him direct, verbatim quotes, then we must have had a serious misunderstanding, but I would not have quoted her. That's not the way I remember that moment."

Woodward called that "a non-denial denial," saying McCurry had no problem when he read the former spokesman the passages before publication.

But you can never tell who Woodward's sources are--George Stephanopoulos recently revealed that Woodward secretly met with the president for his book "The Agenda."

Beating a Retreat

The New York Times is pulling out of Canada--and now plans to cover the country from Denver.

The reason is not boredom with the Canadians but exasperation with a special tax on American workers. The government imposed not only a 40 percent tax on the income of Toronto-based correspondent Anthony DePalma, but on medical and tuition payments by the paper--and then added that onto his salary and taxed that. "Our tax bill this year was something close to twice his gross salary, which is just too much," said Times Foreign Editor Andrew Rosenthal.

"Journalistically, it's not great," Rosenthal said, adding that Denver at least has good plane connections to the north. "The Times actually cares about Canada. It was a very hard decision."

Moment of Candor

"I figured, well, why not just go ahead and fess up. . . . One of the problems we face in journalism is that we too seldom confess our errors."

--Fox News commentator Tony Snow on "NewsHour," explaining why he apologized for his "wildly wrong" prediction that NATO air power could not win the war in Kosovo.

CAPTION: Former White House lawyer Jane Sherburne, left, says Bob Woodward, above, put words in her mouth in his book "Shadow." Woodward's response: "I stand by what's in the book."