IN HIS LATEST book, The Media Monopoly (Beacon Press, coming in May), University of California at Berkeley journalism professor Ben H. Bagdikian takes a critical look at the effects of conglomerate ownership on the media. In addition to surveying the TV networks, newspapers and magazines, he zeroes in on publishing, and therein lies a tale.

The second chapter of The Media Monopoly, entitled "Public Information as Industrial By-Product," begins by describing a book proposal offered to Nan Talese--now editor-in-chief at Houghton Mifflin--in 1979 when she was a senior editor at Simon and Schuster. The agent was Peter Matson, and there were two authors: Mark Dowie of Mother Jones magazine, the reporter who broke the story of the dangerous gas tanks in Ford Pintos, and Geoffrey Cowan, a lawyer-writer whose See No Evil: The Backstage Battle Over Sex and Violence on Television had been a Talese project. Now she was being shown an outline for a book Dowie and Cowan were calling Corporate Murder, which would trace the history of corporate decision-making involving equipment safety, the Ford case being only one example of many business decisions that adversely affected human life.

Talese, as Bagdikian reports, and Dowie, Cowan and Talese herself confirm, was very enthusiastic about the idea. But it is after this point that there begin to be divergent recollections. In The Media Monopoly, Bagdikian tells us that Dowie "almost as an afterthought" said, 'Do you think the title, Corporate Murder, will be acceptable?' " Talese, he writes, "then asked an odd question: 'Is Gulf and Western one of the corporations?' " (Simon and Schuster was then, and is now, owned by Gulf p Western.) According to Bagdikian, Dowie told Talese that there were no plans to include Gulf p Western, whereupon she stated that she foresaw no "problems getting the title past our corporate people."

What happened next is that the book-proposal, despite Talese's support, was turned down by Simon and Schuster's editorial board. Writes Bagdikian, "Neither the title nor the book itself was acceptable. Talese reported back, sadly, that the president of Simon and Schuster, Richard E. Snyder, was vehemently opposed to the manuscript because, among other reasons, he felt it made all corporations look bad." Bagdikian concludes, "If Simon and Schuster had been an independent book company, as it once was, Talese would not have asked an author the question she asked Dowie. It is also possible that Dowie's manuscript would now be available to the public, which, as of 1982, it was not."

All very interesting, except that, for starters, Snyder terms Bagdikian's version "completely untrue." Through a spokesperson, he told "Book Report" that he "has no recollection of such an incident." When told of this denial, Bagdikian's first reaction was surprise. Yet he went on to explain that, probably, he didn't try as hard as he might have to reach Snyder for comment. "Obviously," Bagdikian said, "I could have, eventually, if I'd kept on trying."

His footnotes, however, cite interviews with Dowie, "internal memoranda" and a single interview with Talese. (Initially, Talese, when contacted, said she did not remember talking to Bagdikian. Then, told that his notes indicate otherwise, she blamed her poor memory and said Bagdikian must be right.) As she recalled the incident in question, though, "Dick (Snyder) was vehemently against the book" because of an "honest difference of opinion" rather than any malign influence of corporate ownership. In fact, Talese was at Random House when it was part of RCA, before she was at S&S, and, she says, she cannot think of a single time when pressure from above interfered with the editorial process at either place. (Her present employer, Houghton Mifflin, is independently owned.)

Another contradictory situation involving Bagdikian's reporting of this episode has to do with the omission of Geoffrey Cowan's name from his account. For, despite the project's having actually originated with Cowan, who brought Dowie in (because, he says, he wanted a tough investigative reporter with a track record), Bagdikian leaves him out. He says this is because Cowan expressly didn't want to be mentioned. "He continues to have a publishing relationship" is how Bagdikian explains it, the implication being that Cowan was fearful of jeopardizing future book projects. Cowan, though, thinks he was left out because he remembered things slightly differently than Dowie does. "The question of Gulf p Western definitely was raised" but by whom and how he was not exactly certain. Also, as for the proposed book's making "all corporations look bad," Cowan says, "I don't know what Dick's reaction was from that standpoint" and, anyway, "our information (about what Snyder said) would have only been second or third hand."

Dowie, who says he's never met Snyder, says he knows the proposal was "killed by the top committee which, I believe, has corporate people on it." (It doesn't, according to Simon and Schuster.) Talese, meanwhile, doesn't remember meeting Dowie at all, though Cowan says she did at least once. "I'm not saying Dowie's version is wrong," Cowan reiterates, stressing his respect for Bagdikian, recipient of many national journalism awards and a former assistant managing editor of The Washington Post. It's just that Cowan doesn't "feel personally confident drawing a conclusion about Gulf p Western, Simon and Schuster or Dick Snyder based on this." But he adds, with equal caution, "I'm not saying someone else shouldn't." Besides, "one person remembers things more vividly than another."

According to Cowan, seven or eight other houses, both independent and corporately owned, saw the proposal after S&S nixed it and they all declined to publish it as well. Yet Bagdikian says that Dowie and Cowan told him the reason it never got published was because "it had been pending for such a long time, at Simon and Schuster, that they had gone on to other projects."

Even if each protagonist's version of this story agreed, it's still not enough to make your hair curl with the horror of it all. Bagdikian understands that: "The point I'm making is that the real problem is more subtle. A sensitivity (to the shadow cast by the conglomerates) permeates publishing. The horror stories, the ones you hear about, are the heavy- handed ones."

Acknowledging, however, as Bagdikian did to "Book Report" that there is "no smoking gun," does whet one's appetite for episodes more hard hitting than the Nan and Dick and Mark and Geoff show turns out to be. After unraveling this one incident from The Media Monopoly, one is left wondering if the "subtle" point that Bagdikian claims to be making, is not overwhelmed by the sound of so many conflicting voices.