Minutes after the GOP presidential candidates finished debating in Des Moines last week, moderator Tom Brokaw was conducting a post-game interview with George W. Bush.

"You did a good job tonight," the Texas governor told Brokaw. In short, a good night for Brokaw and for MSNBC, which carried the debate.

But why is it that these debates have become exclusive network productions, hosted by star anchors, trumpeted in after-action programming, and unavailable (except in snippets) to everyone else?

CNN has had the exclusive national rights to three presidential debates in New Hampshire and Arizona, moderated by Bernard Shaw and Judy Woodruff. Fox News had the exclusive on the first New Hampshire debate involving Bush. On Friday, ABC's Ted Koppel hosted a "Nightline" debate between Vice President Gore and Bill Bradley. And NBC's Tim Russert presided over yesterday's Gore-Bradley face-off on "Meet the Press."

"It all has to do with branding and trying to convince your audience that you are the place to come for political coverage," says Brit Hume, the Fox anchor who helped moderate the Manchester debate. But he admits that it's frustrating "when you don't have the access."

In essence, these are inside deals built on existing business relationships.

Many of the New Hampshire debates are staged by WMUR-TV, which is an ABC affiliate, which is why Koppel was originally offered the co-moderator job. WMUR is also a Fox affiliate in the northern part of the state, which is why Fox got the call when Koppel backed out. And the station shares footage with CNN, which co-sponsored two earlier debates.

Des Moines's WHO, which staged the Iowa debate, is an NBC affiliate, which is why MSNBC won the rights. "The candidates hope more people will watch if a network gets behind it and someone of Brokaw's stature gets involved," Russert says.

Frank Sesno, CNN's Washington bureau chief, says a single network can move more quickly in negotiating formats with the candidates. "Candidates like that because they know they've got a guaranteed conduit for the event," Sesno says. "On balance, it's a clear net gain because it wouldn't happen otherwise."

But is that true? What if a local station put on a debate and said that anyone could cover it? Hume says his network would gladly cover all of them. The debate that Hume handled produced the biggest audience in Fox News Channel's three-year existence. (Many viewers outside the state, of course, may not have access to a particular cable channel.)

Koppel and "Nightline" also hosted a frigid town meeting with John McCain and Bradley Thursday in New Hampshire. "I'm not sure anybody but 'Nightline' would carry that in its entirety," says Tom Bettag, the show's executive producer. "What people want is two minutes for the local news."

One exception is C-SPAN, which once carried presidential debates live but has been relegated to tape-delay status by these network deals. "Everything in this business is money and ratings," says C-SPAN Chairman Brian Lamb.

Just as newspapers and magazines play up their own polls as big news, the networks have used the debates as promotional events to showcase their talent and their commitment to political coverage. At times, though, it seems like they've taken over the process.

Belated Apology

More than two months after a revenue-sharing scheme with a sports arena damaged its reputation, the Los Angeles Times yesterday published a front-page apology to readers.

Publisher Kathryn Downing and Editor Michael Parks said the paper's credibility was of "utmost importance" and had been hurt by the decision to publish an Oct. 10 Sunday magazine on the Staples Center and split $2 million in advertising money with the arena. "We did not disclose to our newsroom or to you, our readers, that we shared the profits. . . . That was a mistake."

In the future, they said, the Times will be "free of associations or activities that might compromise our integrity or damage our credibility." The apology--timed to appear a day before the paper's own investigative piece on the fiasco--underscored criticism that Downing and CEO Mark Willes had no journalistic experience before assuming their jobs.

Meanwhile, American Journalism Review reports that some Times Mirror directors were strongly opposed to Willes anointing himself as Times publisher in 1997 (he passed the reins to Downing earlier this year). Former publisher Otis Chandler, whose family owns the paper, told Willes in a heated boardroom meeting: "It's simply not what we hired you for."

Speaking of Downing before the Staples debacle, Chandler said that "people want to leave. . . . They just so dislike her." He told the magazine that the paper "is very disappointing to me. . . . There are some 18 or 20 [reporters] who have gone to the New York Times alone. . . . There is no leadership, no excitement, no future."

Bezos's Moment

The dot-com revolution is complete. Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon.com, has been named Time's Person of the Year.

Although his company has lost billions (even as its stock has soared), Bezos was recognized as a pioneer of online retailing, the man who brought book-selling to the Internet and then expanded his site to include everything from toys to electronics. He founded the Seattle firm in 1995 with $300,000 and now boasts more than 13 million customers.

Bezos, 35, "is a person who not only changed the way we do things but helped pave the way to the future," says Time Managing Editor Walter Isaacson. Still to come: Person of the Century.

Web Rules

Think newspapers like the Boston Globe aren't worried about their Web sites? The Globe says the status of star baseball columnist Peter Gammons is "up in the air" because of Gammons's new contract with ESPN. The contract says Gammons's writing can't appear on any Web site except ESPN's. So Gammons has been benched from the print edition.

Underplayed . . . or Overplayed?

"Later at Princeton, [Bill] Bradley dated a young woman from Wellesley College. Diane Sawyer . . . " The Washington Post, Dec. 13, 43rd paragraph of story.

"An Affair to Forget?"--The Washington Post, Dec. 15, Reliable Source column.

"THEIR SECRET LOVE"--the New York Post, Dec. 16, Page 1 banner headline.

Keyed Up

Alan Keyes has repeatedly accused the media of racism, charging that his presidential campaign is drawing little coverage because he is black (as opposed to because he's going nowhere fast).

On CNN's "Late Edition" last weekend, the former ambassador said a colleague had told him "that a lady who's an editor at the U.S. News & World Report, Jodie Allen, had actually made the remark that if I wasn't black, I wouldn't even be in the debates. A more virulently racist remark I have never heard in my life."

Let's go to the videotape. On C-SPAN's "Washington Journal," Allen said that "many people feel the debates would be more useful if they didn't give equal time to candidates--not just Mr. Keyes; Mr. Hatch, Mr. Bauer--with minuscule support in the polls." She did say that Keyes had a "very, very radical" platform and "if he were white, I don't think he'd get any attention at all."

But Allen, a former Washington Post editor, denied any racial slight last week, saying: "You criticize his proposals and he calls you a racist. People tend not to take him on on the facts because they don't want to be labeled a racist."

Hey, It's a Big Country

London's Financial Times just published a lengthy piece on The Washington Post's efforts to reach an Internet audience. Included is a helpful locator map of . . . Washington state.

Cosmetic Conflict

Actress Jodie Foster "seems modest in every way," including "her appearance (dressed in blue jeans, T-shirt and a red leather jacket and wearing little makeup) . . . "--USA Today, last Wednesday, Page D1.

" '60 [Minutes] II' got the bill for Foster's hair and makeup for the two-day shoot: $3,000 apiece per day. Total: $12,000."--USA Today, last Wednesday, Page D4.

CAPTION: Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon.com: His Time has come.