"The Gore campaign is in full meltdown mode," says the New Republic.

The vice president's kickoff speech "was a debacle," and the campaign suffers from "terminal caution," says the New Republic.

"To some extent, Gore has himself to blame for his campaign's lack of a clear message," says the New Republic.

What's intriguing here is not the message--much of the press has slammed the Gore campaign--but the messenger. The New Republic is, after all, owned by Martin Peretz, a close Gore friend for 30 years.

"There are certain people who are committed to the view that the New Republic shills for Gore, period," says Editor Charles Lane. "Certain people feel that we need a pro-Gore publication." But, he says, "if you simply read what's been in the pages of the New Republic, you would not discern a uniform, categorical, only-nice-things-get-to-be-said-about-Al-Gore picture."

Which is not to say that there haven't been clashes. Peretz sometimes makes suggestions to Lane about upcoming stories on either Gore or the vice president's rival, Bill Bradley.

In a piece on Bradley by John Judis, Peretz recalls, "I thought he had suggested Gore had no record on campaign finance reform, and I pointed out that he had." Peretz also asked Lane why the magazine was devoting a six-page spread to "someone who accomplished so little," namely Bradley.

But Peretz, who once taught Gore at Harvard, says: "We have a long history of having me and other people on the staff being very much for him--I still think he's about the classiest person in the Democratic Party--and those people who don't, say so. It's not a problem."

The frequently liberal magazine will undoubtedly endorse Gore. But, says Peretz, "there's a little dynamic here that people employed by the New Republic somehow need to show, hey, they're completely independent of me, which they are."

That view was thrown into doubt in 1997 when Peretz fired editor Michael Kelly over his constant attacks on Gore and President Clinton. Kelly said then that the dismissal followed his refusal to run an unsigned item by Peretz defending Gore against charges of improper fund-raising.

Peretz's wife, Anne, wrote last month about an annual conference on the family hosted by Al and Tipper Gore, saying: "I've been struck by the seriousness and the passion the Gores bring to these events."

Peretz and his wife have contributed $8,000 since 1996 to Gore's campaign and political committees. Peretz talks to the veep every two or three weeks but says he's more of a pal than a political adviser.

"More often than not," says Lane, his boss "takes special interest in the stuff about Gore. He reads everything that goes in the magazine." But Peretz frequently raises no objection, Lane says.

While political writer Dana Milbank did an upbeat cover story on the fund-raising "JugGoreNaut," he has also taken numerous shots at Gore and his top aides. "I'll keep playing it straight until I get the pink slip," Milbank says.

Ace Reporter

During the Iowa straw poll, ABC News had an aggressive reporter on the scene who covered the event for "Good Morning America," "World News Saturday" and "This Week."

His name: George Stephanopoulos.

That's right, the same guy who helped run Bill Clinton's campaign against George W. Bush's father in 1992, and who plotted White House strategy against Elizabeth Dole's husband in 1996. Stephanopoulos declared Bush, Dole and Gary Bauer to be the big winners in Ames.

After 3 1/2 years of limiting Stephanopoulos to political commentary, ABC has decided to give the former White House aide a larger on-air role--and cast him as more of a straight journalist.

"We're all conscious of the sensitivity with him having been part of the news in Washington," says ABC News President David Westin. "Are his past and his connections likely to affect his reporting, or likely to be perceived as affecting his reporting? You have to take it case by case."

For instance, says Westin, "we wouldn't have him be the beat reporter on the Gore campaign." (Whew.) Hailing Stephanopoulos's "increasing strength and maturity," he adds: "There has been a history of people not growing up in journalism becoming journalists." Westin cites NBC's Tim Russert, a onetime Democratic operative, as an example.

Stephanopoulos says he's still doing "news analysis," and that the GOP candidates--Dan Quayle, Pat Buchanan, Dole, Bauer--were happy to talk to him. In fact, he says, George W. Bush, working a rope line, came over to thank him for being fair.

"This is a political year, and I hope to do a lot of new things," Stephanopoulos says. "Judge me by my work."

Billion-Dollar Question

The State Department went ballistic over a front-page New York Times report last week charging that as much as $1 billion in public funds or international aid to Bosnia has been stolen. A Times editorial flatly called it a billion in foreign aid.

On Friday the Times ran a correction, saying that at least $20 million was stolen from foreign aid--quite a difference--and "the vast majority" of the rest involved Bosnian public funds. Beyond that, the paper stood by the thrust of the story, despite a slew of criticisms from the State Department.

The larger question is whether the media that trumpeted the story--from NBC and ABC to editorials from the Chicago Sun-Times to the Seattle Times--will follow up on the correction or let the billion-dollar figure harden into fact.

Unfriendly Fire

Peter Goelz, managing director of the National Transportation Safety Board, was taken aback when he was interviewed by a reporter for Insight magazine, the Washington Times's sister publication. He says Kelly O'Meara was "extraordinarily antagonistic."

O'Meara was questioning Goelz about secret government radar reports that she said show plenty of activity nearby on the day in 1996 that TWA Flight 800 crashed. The government says it found no evidence to support theories that the plane was downed by a missile.

Goelz quickly realized he knew O'Meara from previous incarnations. She had pursued the missile theory while working as chief of staff to Rep. Michael Forbes, then a New York Republican who had questioned whether there was a terrorist attack on the plane. And she had worked on an Oliver Stone docudrama about TWA 800 that the filmmaker was preparing for ABC before the project was canceled.

"She really believes that the United States Navy shot this thing down and that there was a fleet of warships," Goelz says.

O'Meara did not return calls, but Insight Managing Editor Paul Rodriguez calls her previous jobs "irrelevant. . . . She has working knowledge of an issue. It's like saying someone who worked as a tax accountant has a bias toward tax accountancy. If anyone has questions about her bias, wait till they see a printed product finished. It's just carping about an aggressive reporter."

Creative Writing?

In an increasingly familiar ritual, the Arizona Republic has fired columnist Julie Amparano for possible fabrications. While she denied any impropriety, the Phoenix paper said over the weekend that "some of the people quoted in [her] column are untraceable. We can't find them or prove they exist. Nor has Amparano been able to substantiate these sources to date."

Slow News Week

"Bra Straps Come Out of Hiding"--Page 1 headline, above the fold, Los Angeles Times