When Bill Bradley and John McCain appeared on "Nightline," they both embraced the notion that the networks can fix what's wrong with big-money campaigns by giving candidates free air time.

Ted Koppel agreed such a move was inevitable ("But it isn't my network," he added).

Vice President Gore has endorsed the recommendation for free air time made by a presidential advisory panel--whose co-chairman is Les Moonves, president of CBS Television.

The outlook for this happening in 2000: Don't hold your breath.

The debate has been rekindled because Bradley and McCain are attacking the unregulated "soft money" that floods into campaigns, primarily to pay for 30-second ads. And who profits from this great influx of cash? The networks and their local affiliates.

It's easy, of course, to beat up on the networks for not giving away precious minutes they could sell to Toyota or McDonald's or Amazon.com. But critics note that they are licensed in the public interest, and the presidential panel's proposal of five minutes of air time a night for the last month before the November election would hardly decimate their bottom line.

As McCain undiplomatically told Koppel: "The broadcasters just got away with one of the great rip-offs in history, about $70 billion worth of free spectrum," referring to the new generation of digital channels for which the government is not charging the networks.

While any decision to donate time will be made by corporate executives at ABC, CBS and NBC, the network news chiefs aren't terribly enthusiastic.

"If you identify all the problems facing presidential candidates," says ABC News President David Westin, "lack of access to the national airwaves would not be on my Top 10 list."

"As a news person, I'm not a big believer in free air time," says CBS News President Andrew Heyward. "It tends to be a free political commercial rather than the lively, vigorous exchange of views that illuminates issues, given how cleverly and carefully packaged political rhetoric tends to be."

Gore seemed to up the ante with his "Meet the Press" ploy of asking Bradley to forgo all political ads, a deal no sane challenger would accept. The clear implication is that 30-second spots are ridiculously brief bursts of propaganda, while televised debates are more in the Lincoln-Douglas vein. But even free air time would not wipe out the need for the television ads that have been a campaign staple since Eisenhower's day.

"I don't think it would eliminate the reality of 30-second ads, but it would open a powerful new form of communication that could compete with 30-second ads," says Paul Taylor of the Alliance for Better Campaigns. "I think 30-second ads is an emperor with no clothes. The public has been clicking these off, either literally with the remote control or just tuning them out."

Skeptics scoff at the impact of a mere five minutes of air time a night. But Taylor's group studied early-evening and late-night newscasts in Baltimore, Philadelphia and San Francisco, which had hot mayoral races this fall, and found that local stations gave candidates between 27 and 37 seconds of sound bites each night.

By that standard, five minutes would be an eternity.

Frozen Out

When David Olson, senior vice president of Foundation Health Systems, saw the Dec. 14 edition of The Washington Post, he was stunned.

In a profile of Connecticut's attorney general, the "dapper and camera-ready enforcer" Richard Blumenthal, the paper said Blumenthal planned to file suit that day against Olson's Connecticut HMO, Physicians Health Services. Blumenthal's suit "will allege" that the health plan blocked patients' access to certain costly drugs, The Post said. But no one from the company was called for comment.

"Like any lawsuit, it uses selective facts to make its case," says Olson, who disputes the allegations. "To not have a chance to respond, I thought was dirty pool. It makes the plan look real bad."

When he called to complain, Olson says, Post reporter David Segal told him that he had agreed to "ground rules" that the information could be used only if no comment was sought from the company. Segal did quote an industry official as calling such suits "political grandstanding."

Segal said in an interview that "I made a mistake for which I take full responsibility." Jill Dutt, The Post's assistant managing editor for business, said Segal is a "very thorough and fair reporter" but should not have made such a deal without an editor's approval. She also said the paper should have run a follow-up story explaining the HMO's side.

Pop Quiz

Could the New York Times possibly be asking members of Congress to divulge embarrassing information about themselves?

A Times questionnaire asks the 535 esteemed lawmakers if they have ever traveled to Europe, Asia, Africa or South America--and whether it was for business or pleasure.

And if it was for business, "was that official Congressional business or some other type of business?"

And about how many of these trips have they taken in the past year?

And by the way, "do you speak any language other than English well enough to have a business conversation in that language?"

And "have you ever worked or studied in a foreign country?" Or your spouse, or children?

And has the traveling "had an impact on the decisions you make as a member of Congress?"

And "have you ever employed someone from another country?"

And "do you currently have a valid passport?"

And the coup de grace: "What was the last foreign language film you saw?"

Will those globe-trotters who flunked high school Spanish and never heard of Francois Truffaut turn themselves in? Times Washington Bureau Chief Michael Oreskes makes no apologies for the survey, calling it "a serious effort to understand what kind of experience members of Congress have had in the world. . . . If they won't tell us, I'm not sure what we can do to make them tell us. It wouldn't be the first time we've had doors slammed in our face, literally or metaphorically."

Pimp Problem

It took more than a month, but the Denver Post has finally apologized for a slur against Colorado Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell.

On Oct. 28, Post columnist Diane Carman unloaded on the Republican lawmaker for allegedly doing favors for industries that supported his campaigns. "A pimp's a pimp, after all, even if he looks good in a headdress," she wrote.

American Indian groups strongly protested, noting that a headdress is, in their world, sacred. Post Publisher Gerald Grilly apologized earlier this month, saying the column "needlessly offended American Indians. It crossed a line of insensitivity that is uncharacteristic of this newspaper's coverage."

Bias Watch

Asked by the National Review for his view of the media, George W. Bush said: "I do think they are biased against conservative thought. And the reason is that they think conservative thinkers are not compassionate people."

CAPTION: Bill Bradley and Al Gore, taking sides on political ads recently on "Meet the Press."

CAPTION: Ted Koppel says it's inevitable that the networks will eventually give free air time to presidential candidates; his boss at ABC begs to differ.