"word of Honor" may be soggy with social significance, but it still makes one heck of a gripping story and two hours of superior TV. In the CBS movie at 9 tonight on Channel 9, Karl Malden plays a small-town newspaper reporter Mike McNeil, who risks everything he's worked for in order to protect a confidential source to whom he has pledged secrecy.

Often, TV movies that are ripped from the headlines turn out to be less informative, illuminating and not even as well-written as the headlines were. Here the Important Issue and the human drama are not at odds but in harmony, and Malden's really magnificent, chiseled and grizzled performance gives us a man of ideals who is believably mortal.

The producers (including Alex Karras, who does a cameo appearance as a butcher) did a terrific job of capturing good and bad aspects of small-town life in contemporary America. On the one hand, there's the neighborliness and camaraderie. On the other, there's the nasty streak of narrow-mindedness that can ruin lives and torment the nonconformist. Location filming in Bloomfield Hills and Plymouth, Mich., gives the film visual authority.

In the film, McNeil refuses to reveal his source for a news story that leads to the arrest of a man for sex crimes and murder involving young women. When it looks as though the state will lose its case because McNeil won't betray the confidence, the town turns against him. He is fired from his job. His neighbors won't speak to him. He is thrown into jail. And no one shows up for his eldest daughter's wedding.

The filmmakers -- including three writers and director Mel Damski -- show how calamitous such things could be in middle-American life, and how there are still opportunities even in an amoral age for making a righteous stand.

Although the story itself is not true, it is drawn partly from headlines made by New York Times reporter Myron Farber, who went to jail in 1976 after refusing to reveal his source during a murder trial. The Farber case is referred to by a character in "Honor," and a hot-shot reporter from the East shows up to try to make Mike McNeil into an American hero.

That doesn't take much effort, really. As played with unquestionable credibility by Malden, McNeil comes across as the kind of a guy many people hope still exists and some would like to think they are. As a characterization, this chap is notches above Skag, the steelworker Malden played so intensely in the short-lived NBC drama series last year. "Skag" had plenty of gritty verisimilitude going for it, but Abby Mann's drama got topic-heavy; there was a sign of the times in every three feet, and Skag turned into an anonymous cross section of the common man by the common Mann.

Unfortunately, "Word of Honor" suffers some of the shortcomings of that weekly anthem to gentlepersons of the press, "Lou Grant," the show whose bleeding heart is usually close to hemorrhage. In "Honor," the journalists are not saints, but they're a trifle too saintly. The managing editor, played by John Marley, is not only noble to the core, he's blind. There is one heel on the premises: the publisher, interested only in money. The real villian of the piece, a part-time sex manic, is an official at the local bank.

As maverick writer Ben Stein pointed out in his book "The View from Sunset Boulevard," TV has a tradition of making businessmen the heavies -- evil and corrupt. This probably stems from the fact that most Hollywood writers secretly or openly hate the businessmen who run the networks and studios. It's hard to blame them for that.

As for the message, can too much ever be said in support of the First Amendment? It's not likely that the time will come soon when it won't be necessary to pipe up occasionally on its behalf. When journalists get sanctimonious about their trade, that's gooey. But when, in the film, cops burst into the newspaper office and start raiding reporters' files, as has happened in Real Life, that's worth getting worked up about.

As symbolism, this sight is as unnerving and infuriating as shots of Iranians burning the American flag; something great is being trampled. It's a shock.And "Word of Honor" is championship television.