When John McCain took his presidential campaign to New York, he got a warm reception from Michael Bloomberg, who threw a book party for him at the offices of his financial news service.

The founder of Bloomberg News, it turns out, has also raised money for the Arizona senator and contributed the maximum $1,000 to his White House campaign. And, just to be bipartisan, he's raised money and donated $1,000 for Democrat Bill Bradley. And, just to be totally evenhanded, he's donated $2,000 to campaign committees for Vice President Gore.

Bottom line: Should the boss of a journalistic enterprise be raising cash for White House contenders?

"It was me giving the party, not the editor in chief," Bloomberg says. "Our editor in chief and reporters did not come to the party. Is it any different than the New York Times or The Washington Post endorsing someone at election time?"

Bloomberg says newspapers deal with such "potential conflicts of interest" by separating their news operation from the editorial page. But, he says, "we don't do political news and we don't have an editorial page."

One bit of overlap: McCain, who chairs the Senate Commerce Committee, gave an interview to Bloomberg TV during his party visit.

Editor in Chief Matthew Winkler sees no problem with the party or donations, noting that Bloomberg News has aggressively covered major companies that are among its biggest customers.

"I don't think there is a conflict of interest," he says. "It hasn't in any way compromised us in our coverage, and I don't think it will."

Bloomberg's political activism is not unprecedented; Rupert Murdoch, for instance, has donated $1 million to the California Republican Party. But Murdoch publications are widely seen as ideological, while Bloomberg News prides itself on down-the-middle business coverage.

In congressional races since 1995, Bloomberg has contributed $27,500 to Democratic candidates and $7,000 to GOP contenders. And he has been a major league source of so-called "soft money," handing out $95,000 to the Democratic National Committee and $170,000 to the Democratic Senate and House campaign committees.

"I'm probably more of a liberal Democrat than most of our customers, so maybe it's not good for business," Bloomberg says.

Pot Shots

When Bill Bradley acknowledged on ABC's "This Week" having used marijuana as a kid, he threw back the question at his hosts.

"I think a couple of times I tried it. And I inhaled," said Sam Donaldson. George Will said no. And Cokie Roberts: "Oh listen, I was so pregnant during those years!"

The inquisition spread yesterday to C-SPAN, where Matt Drudge denied having used cocaine (but ducked on other drugs) when asked by a self-described "stoned" caller. Host Brian Lamb said he had never used any illegal drugs--but fretted about being seen as a "pantywaist."

New Kid on the Block

In New Hampshire the weekend before last, George W. Bush, Steve Forbes, Dan Quayle, Gary Bauer and Tipper Gore were all interviewed by the local television station. And the station released an attention-getting poll showing that Bill Bradley had closed to within 7 points of Vice President Gore.

But the station wasn't Manchester's WMUR-TV, which has long dominated the presidential primary as the only statewide network affiliate. It was a mere upstart, WNDS-TV, which launched a news operation only a year ago.

The news chief, Jack Heath, knows the competition pretty well; he spent six years at WMUR, rising to vice president, and recently hijacked one of its anchors.

"It's still a David-and-Goliath game, but it's fun," Heath says. "My analogy is that MUR is the big restaurant, with 300 to 400 seatings a day, and we're a bistro."

WNDS is an independent station in Derry--airing game shows, movies and "All in the Family" reruns--that reaches more people on cable than over the air.

Heath, who ran for Congress as a Republican in 1996, has built a 30-person news staff and struck alliances with CNN, Boston's WBZ and pollsters from Franklin Pierce College.

Arnie Arnesen, a former Democratic candidate for governor who appears on a WNDS chat show co-hosted by Heath, says the station offers "some semblance of diversity." She says that WMUR, Channel 9, "sucks up to whoever's in power," and that politicians who appear on WNDS "may not be covered by Channel 9. . . . If you're feeling angry and frustrated, you have a choice now."

WMUR doesn't sound worried. Says Program Director Julie Campasano: "Any time someone is covering news, we of course would view that as competition, which is probably a healthy thing. It'll make us sharper and keep us that much more on our toes." Campasano notes that her ABC affiliate airs four times as much news and crushes WNDS in the news ratings.

Playing in the big leagues isn't always easy. On a recent trip to New Hampshire, Gore gave WNDS reporter Jennifer Donahue an 11-minute interview, and two aides later called to say how much the veep had enjoyed the session.

But on his next visit--right after the WNDS poll boosting Bradley was released--Gore aides canceled a two-minute interview with Donahue, pleading time constraints. The vice president, however, found time to talk to WMUR.

Secret Tapes?

Two weeks ago, Newsweek reported on "the most damning evidence" against the imprisoned Puerto Rican terrorists who were ordered freed by President Clinton. These were "still-secret audiotapes made by the Bureau of Prisons," which, "according to one law-enforcement official," recorded some prisoners "saying that 'as soon as they get out of there, they were going to return to violence.' "

White House spokesman Jim Kennedy countered that the administration had investigated the "rumor" and found no reason to believe it was true. And last week, the magazine seemed to backtrack in a follow-up story.

After quoting from one prisoner's taped call with no reference to violence, Newsweek said that "Justice officials are exhaustively searching for tapes of the inmates' phone calls to determine what else they might have said." Hmmm.

"A non-retraction retraction," sniffed Kennedy.

Managing Editor Ann McDaniel maintains that "we're confident with the information in both stories. . . . We feel strongly that what we've written about so far is solidly reported."

The second story made no reference to the alleged conversation about violence because, says McDaniel, "we didn't have new information to add." A Justice official says most of the tapes have been reviewed.

Faking It

Michelle Valentine, who recently started a popular wrestling column for the Orlando Sentinel, has been tossed out of the ring.

Seems that Valentine published lists of her readers' top 10 favorite wrestlers--and some of these preferences, she acknowledged to the paper, were as phony as the sport is sometimes accused of being.

Editor John Haile described Valentine as a freelancer who was terminated as soon as he learned of the deception, for which the Sentinel apologized.

"There's nothing you can do when that happens except acknowledge it to your readers," he says. "We have a very strong ethics policy. It was a surprise to us."

Still, Haile is looking for a successor: "Professional wrestling may be suspect in itself, but it certainly has a large following."