"THE FIRST RULE for understanding the human condition is that men live in second-hand worlds," sociologist C. Wright Mills wrote in an essay that early captured the tenor of these television-dominated times. Most of our thoughts and perceptions are formed from and around the reports of others, the "crowds of witnesses," the strangers and dead men who provide the meanings of much of what we see, do and are.

Edward W. Said places a lengthy quotation from that essay at the core of his book, Covering Islam, which is ostensibly an examination of the American media's coverage of the Moslem faith in general and of Iran in particular in the past two years. It is a coverage, Said claims in this damaging but badly flawed indictment, that has been marked by "an unwillingness to report political processes, an imposition of patterns and values that are ethnocentric or irrelevant or both." Reporters and editors have invented a journalistic model of Islam "the better to blind ourselves not only to the world but to ourselves and to what our relationship to the so-called Third World has really been."

Let us brush past Said the media critic quickly, if none too gently. Criticizing the critic is too much like shooting fish in a barrell, or evaluating at a safe distance mugging techniques for dark alleys. Were there any hints of humor in his partial survey, we could suspect that Said had decided to make his point through irony, by being as superficial in details and in his understanding of the process of reporting as the media has often been in dealing with complex, emotional and important subjects like "Islam." But that is surely not the case.

(I can afford to be fairly serene about all this. The few comments that Said makes about The Washington Post are generally favorable, in contrast to the stream of barbs directed at The New York Times, Time magazine and the commercial television networks.)

An example of Said's superficiality as media critic is his charge that once the hostages were seized "more or less . . . only what took place concerning the hostages was important about Iran; the rest of the country, its political processes, its daily life, its personalities, its geography and history were eminently ignorable." To make that assertion, Said himself has to ignore a series of reports on ecology in Iran, women's rights, crime in Tehran, politics in Baluchistan and Azerbaijan and other topics that ran in The Washington Post and other newspapers until all American correspondents were forced out of Iran by Ayatollah Khomeini's government. That event significantly affected American coverage of the Islamic revolution, but Said mentions it only in passing.

Fortunately, there is another Edward Said lurking behind the trendy subject of the "media revolution." There is also the serious analyst of the politics of words and the politics of the Middle East, a Said who has a much larger point to make than the obvious short comings of news organizations when confronted with sustained upheaval at home and abroad. He identifies a quasi-covert line of argument in this country that paints Islam as an evil to be countered by military intervention in the Persian Gulf.

"It is only a slight overstatement to say that Muslims and Arabs are essentially covered, discussed, apprehended, either as oil suppliers or as potential terrorists," Said writes. He discerns the beginning of an alternative view of post-colonial history that is being propounded by geostrategists like J. B. Kelly, who sets up the argument in his Arabia, the Gulf, and the West that the West must restore imperial control over the oil-producing lands where barbarous peoples have shown themselves incapable of ruling for the global good.

Since the 1973 Arab-Israeli war and the subsequent revolution in the international oil industry, the United States has been sliding toward a policy of military force and intervention as its only tool in protecting the clear American interests that are engaged in the Persian Gulf. Said argues that instead of challenging this dangerous turn, American scholars, journalists and businessmen are consciously or unconsciously encouraging it.

"The danger in talking about the loss of Iran and the decline of the West in the same breath is that we immediately foreclose the possibility of most courses of action -- except the ascendancy of the West and the regaining of places like Iran and the Gulf," Said writes, adding, "Except for the ascendancy of the West and the regaining of places like Iran and the Gulf," Said writes, adding, "Except for the purposes of conquest, 'Islam' is not what it is generally said to be in the West today. Immediately, then, we must provide an alternative."

But Said ends his book right there. Earlier he has given the media no sense of an alternative course in covering those features of Mr. Khomeini's Iran that are clearly irrational and repulsive by any human standards, including Islamic ones. On the larger questions of policy, he again does not come forward with an alternative for the West in dealing with the Islamic world beyond suggesting that we should settle back and enjoy the ride. A failure in imagination or analytical ability at the crucial point of the debate does much to undermine Said's earlier diagnosis of a serious problem.

But before you conclude that there is more than the normal share of paranoia in the ideas enunciated by Said, professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University, you should check out ELIE kedourie's Islam in the Modern World. In this collection of essays, most of which have been printed elsewhere, Kedourie finds among other things that it was "the actions of the US in the autumn of 1956 [that] ruined the British and French position in the Middle East," rather than the British and French participation with Israel in the ill-fated Suez invasion. The result was to leave the United States "single-handedly to cope with a determined and activist Soviet Union in the region."

There is not unconvincing debunking of parts of the T. E. Lawrence legend here, but there is a musty air hovering over Kedourie's examination of the way in which history has been written about the Middle East. You have to care and already know a great deal about the role of the British promises to the Arabs (through Lawrence's participation in the revolt and the McMahon-Hussein correspondence) to follow Kedourie through his own Anglo-Arab labyrinth.