The assignment: Take a tough look at Bill Bradley's Senate record.

The commander: Martin Peretz, owner of the New Republic and a longtime pal of Vice President Gore.

The reporter: Jake Tapper, Washington bureau chief of Salon.com, who says he tried to write a fair and balanced piece.

The outcome: Tapper's article was killed--even before he turned it in.

The reason: Peter Beinart, newly installed editor of the New Republic.

The spin: Read on.

"Maybe it didn't fit in with their agenda," Tapper says. "Clearly, a fair and unbiased analysis of Bill Bradley's Senate career by someone who doesn't have a preference in the Democratic presidential race does not belong in Peter Beinart's New Republic."

Beinart calls such criticism "just nuts," saying he didn't know what Tapper had written. "That's absolutely absurd," he says. "I expect and want us to run all kinds of pieces about Bradley which are intellectually honest. There are many things about Bradley we're going to write positively about."

He axed the piece, Beinart says, because "we have a real large staff of people, many of whom like to write about politics. It's important to set a tone that says big political stories are pieces that people on the staff should be writing. That's what we're paying them for."

At the New Republic, though, there's always a back story. Charles Lane, the outgoing editor who was working with Tapper, suddenly lost his job to Beinart. Lane had allowed considerable criticism of Gore in the magazine; Beinart is a Gore supporter who has taken recent potshots at Bradley.

When Peretz enlisted him in August, says Tapper, he said that Bradley has gotten a free ride from the press. In a memo to Lane and other editors, Tapper said he believed that Bradley had done "obscure wonk work," "often checked out of the game" and that "just having deep thoughts isn't enough."

But Tapper says Lane was "pushing" him to make the piece more objective by including Bradley's accomplishments on such issues as tax reform. Tapper spent hours interviewing senators, Bradley aides and former staffers.

"I went into it thinking they wanted to write a hit piece . . . but I realized he was a decent senator," Tapper says. "I thought the New Republic was making an effort not to be the official house organ of the Gore administration."

Paradoxically, some New Republic insiders say they feared the article would be too harsh on Bradley, making the magazine look silly after Peretz, Beinart and Managing Editor Jason Zengerle had slapped the ex-senator around in recent weeks. None of which explains why the piece was rejected sight unseen.

As for the story's fate, Tapper says it is "probably too long and wonky for Salon" but may resurface elsewhere.

All Eyes on Steiger

Paul Steiger, managing editor of the Wall Street Journal, is in intensive discussions with CNNfn about accepting the presidency of the three-year-old financial cable network, succeeding Lou Dobbs. Steiger, who has already rejected the job once, has had considerable success at the Journal, but CNN founder Ted Turner is wooing him with a major financial package. A decision is expected within days.

Catching the Fever

The "Today" show crew made a cameo appearance in a big Bloomingdale's ad in last weekend's New York Times.

"Matt Lauer, Al Roker, Katie Couric and Ann Curry all in feverish clothes from Theory, Tommy Jeans, ABS and Necessary Objects--all from our Only@Bloomingdale's Saturday Night Fever shop for her and him," the ad said.

What gives? Seems the NBC program had just hosted the Broadway cast of "Saturday Night Fever" and accepted an offer from Bloomie's--the play's "official" department store--to outfit Katie and company in very '70s clothes. Couric mentioned on the air that the wardrobe was "provided by Bloomingdale's, except for my shoes."

"Today" spokeswoman Allison Gollust says Bloomingdale's ran the ad without checking with the show. "I don't know if they realized the impression they were giving," she says. "This was not a quid-pro-quo situation. If it appears that way, yes, I'm disappointed." Bloomingdale's spokeswoman Bonnie Brownlee calls the ad "an error on our part."

Toy Story

Mark Willes, the chief executive of Times Mirror Co., has made plenty of waves with his efforts to foster cooperation between editors and advertising executives at the Los Angeles Times.

Now he's pushing the envelope again by joining the board of Mattel, the L.A. area toy giant that is much covered by the Times. While Willes recently stepped down as Times publisher, isn't he creating appearance problems by serving as a director of a California company?

"I have always had and continue to have complete confidence in the independence and integrity of our reporters and editors to do their job," Willes says in a statement. He adds: "I have never tried in any way to influence our coverage of any business, institution or individual."

The former cereal executive, who draws lessons for the media from his marketing background, makes clear he isn't just playing around: "I believe Times Mirror can learn things from Mattel that will help us grow our newspapers."

Follow the Money

Bill Moyers, the veteran journalist, is well known for his PBS documentaries on the corrupting influence of money in American politics.

What's less well known is that Moyers is also president of the Florence and John Schumann Foundation, which has spent millions of dollars trying to change campaign finance laws.

In fact, as first reported by Knight Ridder Newspapers, Moyers's programs have featured spokesmen for campaign reform organizations without disclosing that they were receiving grants from the foundation he heads.

Says Moyers, who has been the organization's $200,000-a-year president since 1990: "On this particular issue, I've been an advocate for 25 years . . . from the perspective that politics has become an arms race of money instead of missiles. I'm not objective on this issue. I don't pretend to be."

On the PBS special "Free Speech for Sale" in June, Moyers interviewed officials with Democracy South, the Brennan Center for Justice and the Center for Public Integrity--all of which have received Schumann grants and support campaign finance reform.

"Those interviewees were not selected because they were Schumann grantees," Moyers says, noting that there were four other major interviews as well. "I'll be honest with you, it did not cross my mind. . . . Should I have thought about their having received Schumann grants? Probably. Should I have put something at the end that Moyers is president of the foundation that supports some of these grantees? Perhaps. I don't know."

The New Jersey-based foundation also has helped underwrite coverage by National Public Radio, Columbia Journalism Review and PBS's "Frontline" and "NewsHour With Jim Lehrer."

Stop Me Before I Swoon

Exposure to ultra-candid presidential candidate John McCain has a mesmerizing effect on political scribes:

"When I set out to spend a few days with McCain last week, I promised my editor that I wouldn't join in this collective swoon. That proved impossible."--Jacob Weisberg, Slate.

"I didn't want this to happen. I know it shouldn't be happening. But it is: I'm falling for John McCain."--Charles Lane, the New Republic.