We people in the news business have been enjoying a mild brouhaha over whether it is meet and just for a newspaper's management to contribute money to support one side in a referendum. A number of newspapers in [WORD ILLEGIBLE] have done so in hopes of defending a proposition that would legalize gambling.

The argument against making such contributions is that, even if the publisher gives the sternest order that laws coverage of the referendum be neutral, the public won't buy it. At the least, they'll say a reporter has to be subliminally influenced by the knowledge that the brass are putting up money to make the votes go one way another.

A good point and a difficult one to refute. It could also be made about editorial endorsements. Although, in accuality, a number of publishers do not seek to influence their editorial board's decision to endorse this candidate or that measure, a number do. Reporters know this, so that writing a favorable piece about a politican the paper is opposing can be a way of defying the boss. In times past, reporters were routinely ordered to do puff pieces and hatchet jobs on public figures, according to the tastes, eccentricities and vendettas of the publisher or owner.

You don't get much of that any more in an era when newspapers strive, above all else, to persuade their readers they are above the fray or out of the fray or in some other fashion disinterested observers. On some newspapers this has been carried to the point executives won't sit on the boards of the community fund and will no longer tolerate those dull, adulatory money-raiser pieces about boys' clubs in the slums. In most news organizations today, reporters and editors are discouraged from taking part in politics or even more innocuous community activities.

By these lights the perfect news reporter would be a value-free robot, with no connections to any living creature. If you don't want reporters who can be swayed by ties of affection or by their own beliefs, the best thing to do is to hire a boat load of Bulgarians, all of whom preferably don't speak a word of English. That should guarantee their utter, uncomprehending impartiality.

No institution can exist independent of the society in which it is placed - neither the phone company, the drug store nor the Daily Dacron Republican Democrat. In wartime this is obvious enough when print and electronic media not only voluntarily submit material for censorhip but make their facilities available for selling war bonds and any amount of propaganda to keep production and morale up. Thus the media's vaunted independence from all outside forces is a relative thing, a matter of judgment, not an absolute principle.

Wartime emergencies aside, should newspapers have no connection with what's going on around them other than to report it? The underlying assumption for that position is that providing an untainted, unbiased news service is the best and the most a paper can do. The truth shall make you free, an informed citizenry is an effective citizenry, etc.

That may be the case, but it has seldom been in accordance with how editors and publishers have acted. Traditionally, papers have seen themselves as doing other things besides providing information. They have thought of themselves as community leaders.

If the majority or newspaper publishers in a state like Florida donate money to the governor to help him beat back what looks like the threat of a gangster incrusion they're playing a part that has historically been theirs. Conceding it's often to a paper's financial benefit to be the community's loudest booster, you have to wonder what other institution is so centrally placed to forge a consensus on important local questions and get action on them.

The great metropolitan dailies in the megalopolis cities don't play that role much anymore. They have found they can get into less trouble. Make more money and make a more valuable contribution by reporting on the news without trying to make it. Yet even today, a paper like The New York Times, which is the epitome of detached, unconnected journalism, finds it must go a-crusading on some local issue or another.

And the Times is increasingly a national newspaper, only nominally connected to the city where it's published. For most of the nation's daily press, the refusal to take an active hand in community affairs won't be seen as a laudible impartiality but as an irresponsible withdrawal, a negative social isolationism whereby a paper sometimes attacks its neighbors but never supports them.