The anchorman couldn't bear to see himself, so he kept sneaking back and forth between the darkened Carnegie Institute theater and lobby.

"I was physically embarrassed seeing myself," said Hodding Carter III who had never seemed any such thing when he was the rave of the airways as the State Department spokesman bringing everybody the latest word on the American hostages in Iran.

Last night was different. Here was Carter, chief correspondent, commentator and anchorman, making his debut in the first of eight weekly half-hour public television shows called "Inside Story" examining how the press covers the news. And a funny thing happened to him on his way to the show.

"On my way to LaGuardia I passed the limousine carrying Mr. [Japanese Prime Minister] Suzuki, and it reminded me of the good old days. I recalled with fondness being the person with the hand on the knife -- ready to plunge it into the source -- rather than here with my back to someone else's knife."

He didn't really mean what he said just before sneaking out and vowing that it was the last anybody would see of him last night: "I will kill most of you when I read your reviews tomorrow."

In fact, Carter's fellow journalists, more than 100 invited in for wine and cheese by WETA (which airs the show tonight) and its president Ward Chamberlin, were quite gentle in both praise and criticism after the screening.

"I waxed between being somewhat puffy and feeling we deserved to be nailed. Any program that does that to a journalist is okay," said ABC-TV's Steve Bell, who also voiced some "concerns" that there were aspects of the story on the Atlanta murders that weren't addressed.

Consumer activist Ralph Nader called it "a promising beginning which will come of age when it takes on the oil industry and tells how the press does or doesn't cover it, and whose last line in the show is, 'Okay, folks, we have nothing to lose except our sponsor.'"

(Sponsors do happen to include two oil companies -- Atlantic Richfield and Chevron -- among the 10 corporations that provided the initial $1.5 million funding.)

"Hell, why shouldn't the press look at what the press does?" asked Paul Duke, host of PBS' "Washington Week in Review." "I've never been particularly impressed with journalistic review magazines, so it's a real challenge to see if TV can do the job. I can't help wondering if you can sustain general interest in the press and whether perhaps the public might not be more interested at times in what's a Haynes Johnson or a Sally Quinn really like."

NBC-TV's Richard Valeriani, who prefers to watch these things at home and meant no offense when he told Carter so, as he left before the screening, said there is no question that the press ought to examine itself. "The question is how do you sustain it? Where I grew up in the AP, the editor said nobody cared about how you covered a story. Journalism students are interested but I'm not aware of whether the public is."

But Ned Schnurman, the executive producer whose idea it was to do "Inside Story," said material was the least of his problems as he starts trying to raise another $4.5 million that will enable him, Carter and the series to go 26 weeks starting in the fall.

"To think we'd run out of ideas," said Schurman, former associate director of the National News Council, "is like saying we'd run out of news."