Not to spoil the suspense or anything, but George W. Bush and Vice President Gore will win tonight's Iowa caucuses. Feel free to turn off your TV sets, go out to dinner, help the kids with their homework.

Ah, but will Bush and Gore win the media primary--that is, the instant-analysis gabfest in which journalists magically divine whether a victory is sufficiently impressive or (horrors!) fails to meet the expectations set by these very same press poohbahs?

"It's more alchemy than science, more prophecy than reporting," says Matt Cooper, Time's deputy Washington bureau chief. "I admit it's sort of a goofy exercise in many ways, but I don't know what the alternative is."

"What's winning in Iowa?" asks U.S. News columnist Gloria Borger. "It's like it all depends on what is is. If Gore wins Iowa by a little bit, it won't be really, really winning big."

The spin wars begin in earnest tonight, but media folks have been tuning up by forecasting the likely outcome and sketching their favorite scenarios. Bob Schieffer predicted on "Face the Nation" that "Gore is going to win pretty big, in double digits out in Iowa." Pundit Tucker Carlson took a giant leap further, declaring Bill Bradley to be "toast." Weekly Standard Editor Bill Kristol has announced that John McCain will win the GOP nomination.

The candidates, of course, are aggressively playing the expectations game. Bush told ABC's "This Week" yesterday that "37 percent would be good if I can achieve that," because it matches Bob Dole's 1996 showing in the Iowa caucuses, the high-water mark for a Republican. That sets the bar fairly low for a front-runner who has raised a record-shattering $67 million.

Bradley told reporters--who have already started asking when he'll drop out--that he hopes only to do as well as the 31 percent that Ted Kennedy garnered against President Jimmy Carter in 1980. Cooper calls that "ridiculous. You put a dead dog on the ballot and you'll break 30 percent."

Steve Forbes says he'll be "the surprise" in Iowa--the press will be the judge of that, thank you--and there will be a second-tier scramble among Alan Keyes, Gary Bauer and Orrin Hatch for favorable analysis. In short, it ain't over until the media are all talked out.

Slamming a Source

It's a classic journalistic dilemma: What does a reporter do when a confidential source starts supplying bum information?

For Timothy O'Brien of the New York Times, the answer was clear. He outed the source, Emanuel Zeltser, in a lengthy story last week on charges of Russian money-laundering through the Bank of New York, which O'Brien and a colleague broke last summer.

"We didn't think anonymity should be a screen for someone to pollute the reporting process," O'Brien says. In fact, he says he repeatedly warned Zeltser that furnishing "either bad information or lies" would end their confidentiality agreement.

Zeltser, a Russian emigre, vowed in a letter to the Times to "retaliate." He launched a Web site devoted to trashing O'Brien and accused him of acting "irrationally." Associates sent letters to the paper charging O'Brien with betrayal and harassment. A friend of Zeltser who dined with them one night says she spurned O'Brien's sexual advances. All ridiculous, says O'Brien.

O'Brien says Zeltser was never much of a source and that he quoted him by name in one story last August on the Bank of New York investigation. Zeltser asked for anonymity after that, O'Brien says, and provided some documents involving the World Bank.

Upon discovering questions about at least one of those documents--and an affidavit charging that Zeltser had fabricated his law diploma--"we made a conscious decision to back away from the guy because he was a bull . . . artist," O'Brien says.

In one of their last conversations, O'Brien says Zeltser asked: "Do you love me?" Now, obviously, the two sides have fallen out of love.

Have You Ever . . .?

So what exactly was Buffalo radio jock Tom Bauerle thinking when he asked Hillary Rodham Clinton if she'd been "sexually unfaithful" to her husband? And whether she'd ever had a fling with the late Vince Foster?

It "gets to the character issue," the WGR host insisted on Fox's "O'Reilly Factor." The rumors had been "out there for years on the Internet." In fact, declared Bauerle, "if I were Hillary Clinton . . . I would be grateful for the opportunity to respond to this question."

Journalists who worry about being seen as jackals might not be so grateful.

Should such questions--based on nothing more than unsubstantiated chatter--be "out of bounds," as the first lady said? Most reporters think so.

But the episode has gotten unfairly lumped in with a question the same day by a reporter for Buffalo's WKBW-TV, who asked whether the unofficial Senate candidate planned to leave her husband when his presidency ends. (Clinton said no.) That question--which no Washington reporter would have dared ask in a public forum--is what much of the country has been buzzing about in the post-Monica era.

The Washington Post played the first lady's response in a seven-paragraph wire story at the bottom of Page A6. The New York Post ran a front-page screamer: "I'LL NEVER LEAVE BILL." On that one, the tabloid may have been closer to the mark.

Losing the Scoop

Media Week magazine could have broken the story about the White House reviewing network programs for anti-drug messages--but passed it up.

Freelancer Daniel Forbes spent months reporting the piece for the magazine. He says he pulled the article last month because of "editorial differences" and took it to Salon.com. "The story itself was important enough that it demanded to be published elsewhere," Forbes says. Sources say the magazine felt Forbes's version contained too much political spin.

Keith Dunnavant, Media Week's managing editor, says he had scheduled the article to run this month, but "Mr. Forbes and I had a disagreement on the focus of the piece, and he decided--as is his right as a freelancer--to take the piece back. . . . Obviously we wanted to run the piece, but we had to run the piece on our terms."

Time for Candor

Anyone who bet that Time magazine would tread lightly on the tale of its parent company being acquired by America Online lost the wager.

The magazine's cover story said Time Warner "failed to beat the Internet upstarts" and "decided to surrender" to Steve Case's cyberforces. Time Warner "remained inextricably mired in its own past, a dinosaur lurching its way through a world that would soon belong to swifter creatures, almost pathetically unable--like all the major media companies--to make the Great Leap Forward into the new Internet economy." (Pathetically unable?) For good measure, Time described the company run by CEO Gerald Levin as "an extremely successful dysfunctional family."

Down and Dirty

Ottawa Citizen editorial writer John Robson has apologized for twice calling Russia "a lump of dung" (the column's closing line: "Russia has sucked, sucks and will suck"). Robson said he had been "vile," "offensive" and "hurtful."