"Absence of Malice" is mainly to be regretted as a lost opportunity. Having isolated a provocative and generally ignored topic -- irresponsible journalism -- it lets the little rascal slip away.

Just when the press would appear to be overdue for a stinging melodramatic rebuke, along comes this gentle, almost absent-minded, slap on the wrist. It's really quite a cruel letdown, but show-business luck may be riding with the movie anyway.

The public seems predisposed to like the movie, which opens today at area theaters. Perhaps this reflects nothing more substantial than fondness for Paul Newman, such an attractive victim of journalistic abuse that the filmmakers might have risked placing a blemish or two on his blameless character. The movie would be on far more promising dramatic ground if Newman's character were a public figure whom influential editors or reporters really wanted to nail, for one reason or another, and if his past were checkered enough to make their hostility somewhat defensible.

The offending journalist in "Absence of Malice" is Sally Field as a gullible reporter for a Miami daily. Falling for an obvious set-up, she prints a bogus story implicating Newman, an honest liquor wholesaler haunted by a gangster pedigree, in a criminal investigation that has been going badly for Bob Balaban, a nervous and presumptuous federal prosecutor. He has no reason to believe Newman is involved in the stalled case, which concerns the disappearance of a labor leader. Balaban merely hopes that putting the heat on somebody with mob connections will stir up the dust and shake down a lead of some sort.

Field is presented with this leak in a way that ought to arouse suspicion all around. It doesn't, and the story is printed after a perfunctory effort to contact Newman for comment. In one of the more persuasive scenes (screenwriter Kurt Luedtke has been both a reporter and an editor), a lawyer for the paper blandly urges Field to "make the attempt to talk to him -- it will create the impression of fairness," the impression being the important thing if legal complications should arise.

The next day Newman confronts Field in the newsroom and demands to know where she got her bum lead. She spills her coffee, mumbles and pleads the confidentiality of her sources. Newman takes his appeal higher but gets no satisfaction from the paper, which takes the position that he's owed none, given the "reasonable and prudent," if unavailing, effort to get in touch with him. The story has bad consequences for Newman's business -- the union orders his employes to walk out. Although Field would appear to have every reason to believe that she's been a prize chump, she goes on to aggravate the situation by printing a follow-up story that victimizes a nice, jittery woman (Melinda Dillon) who can supply Newman, a close friend, with an alibi but only at the expense of personal disgrace.

The reporter's blithe abuse of Dillon's confidences can't be construed as mere carelessness. Field's character seems to put herself beyond the pale by ruining Dillon's life in cold blood. The filmmakers can't work their way out of this bind: The second time around, the reporter's done something utterly outrageous and unforgivable.

Newman and Field somehow bury the hatchet and become romantically involved, making her at least a three-time loser by journalistic standards. Despairing of satisfaction from the paper or the feds, Newman concocts a little "sting" operation to teach everyone a lesson.

"Absence of Malice" was directed with earnest, straightforward proficiency by Sydney Pollack, and there are crucial public issues involved in the premise. Still, excessively generous allowance must be made if one is to overlook the defects and confuse "Absence of Malice" with a pertinent, lucid melodrama on a hot topic. A remarkable number of journalists seem to be overcompensating for the film's mildness by treating it as something hard-hitting and usefully purgative. More power to the souls considerate enough to do the filmmakers' work for them, but look out for frustration if you're only prepared to meet them halfway.