When White House spokesman Joe Lockhart was asked about a New Yorker item that President Clinton might run for the Senate from Arkansas in 2002, he swatted it down. "He has no intention of running for the Senate, rules out the idea of running for the Senate," and what's more, said Lockhart, Clinton called the story "crazy."

That didn't stop a slew of cable programs and "NBC Nightly News" from debating the faraway race. Why be deterred by a mere White House denial? Jeffrey Toobin, whose New Yorker item said only that "some old friends . . . believe" Clinton will run, was unimpressed.

"These denials are far less hard than Bill Clinton gave the voters of Arkansas in 1990 that he wasn't going to run for president," Toobin says. "I don't take denials like that very seriously." Besides, he says, "compared to what he's usually accused of, this seemed like a bouquet."

Says Lockhart: "It's news as entertainment. Even stories that news people know aren't true are more entertaining to debate than the real news. Who wants to do stories about a trillion-dollar surplus?"

It's an increasingly common scenario: Public figures say one thing, journalists weigh in with a different story and people wonder what to believe: the official version, the media spin or the inevitable counter-spin.

Case in point: George W. Bush's campaign aides letting reporters write that he had raised more than $20 million, knowing full well that the next day they'd wow the press by reporting $36 million. The reason, said a spokesman, was "to keep the expectations bar under what we'd eventually come up with."

After Vietnam, Watergate, Iran-contra and Monica Lewinsky, the press and much of the public no longer assume that politicians are telling the truth. But perhaps the media are also being used by those who want to settle scores or push an agenda from behind a cloak of anonymity.

To wit: Clinton maintains publicly that he "took no offense" at Vice President Gore trashing his behavior with Lewinsky. But the New York Times last weekend quoted unnamed advisers as saying the president was "very upset" and "livid" over Gore's criticism.

"You can always get a presidential friend to tell you almost anything," Lockhart insists.

The day after the story appeared, The Washington Post reported that unnamed White House aides "called the account exaggerated," with Chief of Staff John Podesta saying Clinton was "not at all bothered by the vice president's statements." Or was that just a mid-course spin correction?

The natural assumption is that Clinton was dissembling and the Times account is the "real" story. But Times reporters John Broder and Don Van Natta, to their credit, questioned the motives of their sources. Perhaps, they wrote, the Clintonites were trying to help Gore by portraying the president as hopping mad. Perhaps they were trying to show off their closeness to Clinton. Or perhaps they were simply being honest.

Divining the sources in such behind-the-scenes reporting can be tricky business. When Bob Woodward's book "Shadow" was published, many people assumed that Robert Bennett, the president's lawyer in the Paula Jones case, was the source of verbatim accounts in which Clinton repeatedly lied to Bennett about Lewinsky. But Bennett has denied this--"I'm not going to break the attorney-client privilege for him or anybody else," he says--and several other people were in the room during most of the conversations. So the guessing game continues.

No Slam Dunk

The disclosure that 18-year-old tennis star Alexandra Stevenson is the out-of-wedlock daughter of former basketball star Julius Erving has triggered an avalanche of publicity, totally overshadowing her early wins at Wimbledon.

But there's been far less focus on this question: Why was it necessary for the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel to tell the world about the father of a teenager whose mother preferred to keep his identity private? Sun-Sentinel sportswriter Charles Bricker dug up the birth certificate, but of what value--other than sheer titillation--is this scoop?

"If you wonder why people hate us--this is why people hate us," says sportswriter Mike Lupica of ESPN and the New York Daily News. "Congratulations to everyone. We outed Julius Erving and Alexandra Stevenson and [her mother] Samantha Stevenson because we have to know everything about everybody and it's our right. Nobody has any privacy anymore.

"Shame on the writer, shame on the editor, shame on the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel. She deserved not to have this moment spoiled by some hustler with a laptop."

But Miami Herald sports columnist Linda Robertson says that "who's the father" is a natural question, given Stevenson's stardom. "It sounds kind of insensitive, but she's a big story at Wimbledon, and the fact that it was Dr. J becomes a big story," she says. "The argument about protecting the rights of a youth would go out the window for the big-story motivation."

Erving did not cover himself with glory, first denying his role to Bricker, then admitting it days later. But Bricker clearly resented Samantha Stevenson, a flamboyant sportswriter who has bragged about her daughter in the New York Times. Stevenson, who is white, had already roiled Wimbledon by suggesting there was racism and lesbianism at the tournament. She is "profiting" in prize money and publicity, Bricker wrote, and "it makes you sick."

Sun-Sentinel Sports Editor Fred Turner says the paper "had a lot of discussion" and "didn't want to overdo" the story, which he maintains was justified by Stevenson's "celebrity status. . . . Her mother opened some of the doors by some of the charges she made. You'd be less than a decent newsperson if you didn't look at it."

Brill: Take 2

Vanity Fair's Jennet Conant quit the magazine when her tough, negative piece on publisher Steve Brill was killed. So Vanity Fair handed the hot potato to critic James Wolcott--and got a tough, negative piece on Brill.

While allowing that Brill's Content has run a few good pieces, Wolcott says the "tedious" magazine "annotates itself so anal-retentively that any semblance of inner life suffocates under a heap of hypertext. . . . Lacking a political point of view, Brill's Content bags small game for minor infractions and lets bigger ogres run free. . . . Brill's columns are afflicted with self-important gab."

Wolcott acknowledges that Brill's Content slapped him around this year for not disclosing in a piece involving Jay McInerney that they'd had a longstanding feud and that a character in McInerney's novel was based on him. (The feud, says Wolcott, was hardly a secret.)

Brill brushed off the piece as Vanity Fair's second effort to knock him, saying, "If he's writing about how boring our magazine is, it looks like he attempted a parody."

Bagging the Big One

The showdown between CNBC's expanded "Business Center" (with Ron Insana and Sue Herera) and CNN's retooled "Moneyline" (with Willow Bay and Stuart Varney replacing the departed Lou Dobbs) is getting serious. Insana, who chatted up Vice President Gore after the debut, has landed an interview with President Clinton for 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, to be followed by a "Today" show piece. "I think they kind of liked the double exposure," Insana says.

Spurred to Greatness

The San Antonio Express-News was so pumped over the city's Spurs being in the NBA finals that its e-mail system crashed. A manager suggested that staffers put up "Go Spurs Go" decorations, prompting a flood of messages that the newspaper couldn't be objective if employees were jumping on the team bandwagon.

CAPTION: Alexandra Stevenson's powerful serve couldn't put away the media's interest in her parentage.