Journalists who hammer, eviscerate or disembowel politicians are generally lauded by their peers as aggressive. Those who appear too sympathetic are branded with the ultimate insult: in the tank.

Writer Michael Lewis says he was trashed in this fashion--"A shill. A suck-up. A sellout"--for his admiring writing about John McCain. In fact, he acknowledged in a New York Times Magazine essay, he wanted to write about McCain's presidential campaign--the Arizona senator even offered to let Lewis stay in his Washington apartment--but knew he wouldn't be taken seriously.

"There's no question I am compromised in some way," Lewis says in an interview. "There should be room in the world for compromised journalists, too. . . . The things I'd written about him, while flattering, I didn't feel were horribly ingratiating, but maybe they were."

Lewis ran into the same problem with his book "The New New Thing," about Silicon Valley pioneer Jim Clark. He had extensive access to Clark but says the Netscape founder didn't like the book, while critics accused Lewis of being too soft on Clark.

"This sort of relationship requires some form of admiration," Lewis says. "If I got to know Clark and thought he was a total [expletive], I would not have written a book about him and no one would want to read it."

The adversarial relationship between pols and the press is deeply embedded in the post-Watergate culture of journalism. But Lewis sees this as a "dehumanizing prism" and suggests that readers may glean more insight from a writer who openly likes (and has access to) his subject. He says the much-criticized Sidney Blumenthal wrote well, if admiringly, about the Clintons before joining the White House staff.

While other journalists have fallen under McCain's spell, Lewis made particularly clear how much he likes the senator in earlier pieces for the New Republic and the Times Magazine, and later spent a weekend at McCain's seven-acre Arizona retreat. Detractors said Lewis "felt about this guy the way he felt about his ex-wife's [derriere]," the author says, recalling his gushing column about his then-wife for the New Republic.

The true test of whether a journalist is a mere admirer or an unabashed cheerleader is whether he would report damaging information on his subject. "If I started hanging out with McCain and found out he had some horrible habit that no one knew about, what would I do then?" Lewis says. "That's a question I'd rather not answer because I don't know."

But perhaps there is a bit of room for compromised journalists. After last weekend's magazine piece, Time Managing Editor Walter Isaacson called Lewis to ask him to pen a story about his experiences with McCain.

Klayman Fights Back

Larry Klayman gets a fair amount of criticism in the press for his controversial lawsuits. And he thinks he knows the reason: "the liberal Jewish intelligentsia."

The chairman of Judicial Watch, a conservative advocacy group that has repeatedly sued the Clinton administration, Klayman writes on his Web site that many Jewish journalists have been "vindictive" toward him:

"As a Jew with close ties to social as well as economic conservatives--and as a Jew who believes in Christ--I guess they perceive me as a threat to the liberal Jewish creed, a kosher Uncle Tom."

Listing 15 reporters and columnists who work for such publications as the New York Times, The Washington Post, the Nation, Salon, the National Law Journal and Knight Ridder, Klayman says that "these liberal Jewish journalists have forgotten the roots of their religious past" and that "nary a non-Jewish journalist has written such invective" about him. He adds: "The leftist politics that they share with the Clinton administration have been exalted over and above all else, creating a devastating moral vacuum."

How does Klayman know that religion or ideology plays a part for these journalists in what he calls their attacks on "a fellow Hebrew whom they perceive as a political heretic"? He responds with a written statement, asking: "Do Jewish conservatives get the same sort of treatment from Jewish liberals that black conservatives get from black liberals?"

Klayman's piece is quite personal, beginning with recollections of his Jewish grandparents from Poland and Ukraine. "I now know how Alan Keyes, Ward Connelly, J.C. Watts, Armstrong Williams and Justice Clarence Thomas must feel" in fighting "reverse racism," he writes.

Klayman is doing more than complaining about Jewish journalists. He recently filed libel suits against two of those on his list, Harvey Berkman of the National Law Journal and David Segal of The Washington Post, calling them "dishonest shills."

Among other things, Klayman objects to the Law Journal's characterization of his suit against his mother, saying he was trying to retrieve funds that rightly belonged to his dying grandmother. And he takes issue with a Post column that said he badgered his public relations staffer to get him on television talk shows, charging that a former employee's quote made him appear to be insensitive to school shootings.

"Over the years, The Post has not had one positive thing to say about Larry Klayman or Judicial Watch, and its mocking and frequently libelous coverage in David Segal's 'Washington Hearsay' column . . . which is read by judges sitting on our cases, is an unprecedented attempt to influence our cases," Klayman says.

Mary Ann Werner, an attorney for The Post, says: "We don't think that Mr. Klayman can establish any of the elements of a legal claim, and we intend to vigorously defend against the lawsuit."

Jeremy Feigelson, attorney for the Law Journal, says: "We believe the complaint has no merit and we intend to defend the complaint vigorously."

Berkman is undeterred. He reported last week, based on tax filings, that the nonprofit Judicial Watch spent only 5.8 percent of the $12.4 million it raised last year on litigation, compared with 72.6 percent on an educational campaign and fund-raising solicitation. Klayman says the group's finances are in accord with generally accepted accounting principles and that the article will now be included in his libel suit.

False Note

The Baltimore Sun has no tolerance for plagiarism, musical or otherwise. The paper last week fired music critic Stephen Wigler for lifting a paragraph in his review of the Baltimore Opera Company's performance of "La Traviata." Editor John Carroll apologized to readers and the opera, saying Wigler had acknowledged copying the material from a 1993 music reference book.

Brought to You by . . .

The "CBS Evening News" has launched a weekly segment called "The American Dream," focusing on people striving to achieve extraordinary goals. But it's also helping CBS achieve revenue goals; viewers are reminded that the segment is sponsored by Fidelity Investments.

While such on-air commercialization has become common in local and cable news, spokeswomen for the ABC and NBC evening newscasts say they have not aired regular segments identified with a single sponsor.

"It's not really any different than the other billboarded segments we do," says CBS spokeswoman Kim Akhtar. " 'Eye on America' has often been sponsored by Tylenol, for example. It's nothing new." She says the feature was already in the works when Fidelity signed on and that the company "has nothing to do with the content of the segment."

Fourth Estate Rules

"I couldn't tell them the truth, that the media runs the government"--President Clinton to Dick Morris after speaking to a youth group, according to Morris's new book, "Vote.com."