THESE SPONSOR DEALS RUN GAMUT -- FROM GOOD TO BAD TO THE WORST

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There are good sponsorships and then there are bad sponsorships.

A while back I wrote about the New York City Rescue Mission's efforts to hold a Great Thanksgiving Banquet in Bryant Park to give the homeless and people who don't have families a turkey meal with all the fixin's.

While the Nov. 22 event won't be in Bryant Park, where the mission first envisioned it, it will be held in the rescue mission chapel (to be turned into a dining room). I'm happy to report Johnson & Johnson's Tylenol has agreed to sponsor it, which takes more than a little pressure off the rescue mission's funds and enables diners to eat on nice linen tablecloths with cut flower centerpieces.

In return, Tylenol's name will appear on the aprons of celebrity servers (including Miss America, the fire commissioner and, hopefully, hizzoner himself, Rudy Giuliani) and on other signage to get it some media coverage. Steve Gilkenson, director of ministry for the mission, told me the Tylenol people exerted absolutely no pressure on what they expected for their contribution. And, of course, Tylenol's involvement will not be concealed in any way, nor would you expect it to be.

The same can't be said for the deal Times Mirror Co. cut with a sports arena. The Los Angeles Times produced a 164-page issue of its magazine -- billing $2 million in ad revenue -- devoted to the new Staples Center, and split profits with the arena. And the reporters and editors producing the issue had no inkling of the arrangement. They felt betrayed by the business side, and they rightly worried their coverage of the Staples Center would forever be looked on with suspicion.

Ironically, a week or so before all this broke (originally in New Times, an alternative newspaper in L.A.), the head of Times Mirror Co., Mark Willes, was a speaker at the Gertrude and G.D. Crain Jr. Lecture Series at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. I must say he had the students eating out of his hand.

One of the things he said was that "there are big differences between lines and walls" -- dividing the editorial and the ad sides. "You can't walk through walls." And he talked of how he had torn down the walls so editorial and ad people could talk about common concerns, such as growing the paper's circulation.

"It's not possible," Mr. Willes told the Medill audience, "to simply be an objective observer. How can we use people responsibly in what we do to cause change in the greater community? . . . We've crossed over the bridge that says we're not going to be participants; we're going to be players."

And players they are, a little too much so for most of the newspaper's editorial people. The paper could have discharged its financial obligations as a "founding sponsor" of the Staples Center by making the section on the sports arena an advertorial, untouched by the regular reporting staff. Or perhaps a newspaper has no business becoming a "founding sponsor" of anything in its home town. Are you going to write bad things if you're a sponsor?

That brings us to the greatest travesty of them all, the infamous "Sensation" exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. This was a case of the sponsors -- people and institutions with a direct financial interest in seeing that the exhibit was successful -- being totally anonymous and protected. Wouldn't you know it, one of the anonymous sponsors was adman and art lover Charles Saatchi, who owned the controversial collection and, of course, would profit if the works became more valuable.

What rankles me the most here was how supporters of the exhibition hooted down anyone unenlightened enough to criticize some of the works for being in extremely bad taste. To these people, it was a First Amendment right for artists to display whatever they wished in the name of free expression and the free exchange of ideas.

How will these same people react now that The New York Times has disclosed that the secret backers of the exhibit are the very people who stand to profit most?

All of a sudden this "free exchange of ideas," espoused by so many, got very