Ask three former White House press secrataries what is wrong with the Washington press corps, and the answers you'll get are mostly vague and suprisingly polite. The only firm answer will be Jack Anderson and Evans and Novak, and you only get that by reading "twist the lines.

At least this is what happened yesterday when Ron Nessen, Jody Powell and Ron Ziegler spoke to several hundred newspaper editors meeting in convention here. Nessen and Ziegler might almost have been looking for jobs as reporters, they were so nice. ("I won't answer the question" was -- not for the first time -- Nessen's reaction to the issue on the table.) Powell was tougher, maybe because he's writing a book on the subject.

It was Powell who cited Anderson and the Evans-Novak column as two examples of the worst reporting he saw as press secretary. Without naming the authors, he described Anderson's column last fall reporting that President Carter was planning to invade Iran mostly for domestic political purposes ("that column was a fabrication"), and the Evans-Novak column reporting that White House counsel Lloyd Cutler had made a secret deal in Geneva for the pre-election release of the American hostages ("whole cloth").

Jack Nelson, Washington bureau chief of the Los Angeles Times, was also on the panel. He asked rhetorically, "is there an economic reason for continuing a column like that" even when an editor knows it's wrong, because he fears the competition would pick it up if he dropped it? "I've seen these columns and I think it's bad . . . I think that hurts the credibility of the news media tremendously and has been doing it for years."

Each of the press secretaries was asked if he ever told a lie. "I don't think I ever knowingly lied," Nessen replied, though he acknowledged that he once held back some facts about Betty Ford going into the hospital. "I always basically attempted to develop a composite of facts," Ziegler said, to laughter from the crowd. "I never walked out and knowingly lied, "Ziegler added more somberly, but he did admit that some things he had said turned out to be false.

Powell said he lied -- once, and for patriotic reasons. That was a few days before the unsuccessful raid to try to free the hostages in Iran, when a reporter asked if the United States might be reconsidering the use of force to free them. Absolutely not, Powell replied, though he was fully aware at the time that the mission was about to begin. It was "as convincing a lie as I could come up with," Powell said, and he would tell it again in the same circumstances.