It is hard to withhold sympathy from Jose Napoleon Duarte, the president of El Salvador's junta. He has so many enemies that now he imagines that the American media are out to destroy him, too.

His latest charges were in a recent New York Times interview: "It is very difficult to fight the guerrillas, the economic problems, against the extreme right and at the same time to fight The New York Times and The Washington Post and to fight the congressional people and to fight Russia. It is almost impossible."

He's wrong. It's totally impossible, because no media fight exists. No reportorial wars have been declared on Duarte by the two papers he hits. Nor has either dispatched reporters to hype the guerrillas as freedom fighters or glorify the left--in Duarte's words--as "Robin Hoods."

In his press attacks, Duarte is hardly the first creator of bad news to blame the messengers for its delivery. It's a standard reflex.

But in the midst of a war far beyond his control, Duarte is justified in feeling beleaguered. It is his poor luck to happen to be in power when, after a half-century of government by coups and counter-coups, El Salvador's violence exploded into world view. He must wonder why his country's hell didn't break loose between 1964 and 1970, when he was only the mayor of San Salvador and could have been spared greater responsibility, or why it didn't when he was forced into exile after he won the presidency in 1972.

Duarte does have an argument against the media, but it is not the thrashing one he is making now.

He should be asking the hordes of journalists suddenly converging on El Salvador, where were their news organizations 10 or 20 years ago when the "Fourteen Families" ruled by institutional violence? Where were they when a few idealistic priests and nuns tried to carry out the economic reforms voiced by the Latin American church at Medellin, Colombia, in 1968? Where were they during the decades when despotism flourished and some news coverage might have helped counter the banana republic image?

If it turns out that the media have failed the public on El Salvador, it will be that their coverage was belated. The flames that created the current inferno weren't lit when Archbishop Romero was slain during mass two years ago this month, nor when the American religious workers or labor organizers were murdered.

They go back at least to 1932 and the beginning of military rule. That was the year of "La Matanza," the slaughter. As many as 20,000 peasants were machine-gunned by the army and police. Yet as recently as five years ago, in the spring of 1977, Father Rutilio Grande, a Jesuit, could be murdered along with another priest, and only a few reporters covered the event.

Latin America was never one of the glamor beats among foreign correspondents. Only lately, with the drama of an election unfolding, has the Camino Real Hotel in San Salvador become the National Press Club South. In the 1950s and 1960s, few American news organizations had permanent bureaus in Latin America, and usually it meant a lone reporter covering an entire continent from a tiny office in Buenos Aires. In the 1950s, the Latin America story of the decade was the stoning of Richard Nixon in Caracas, not how the ruthless Somoza family of Nicaragua had amassed 25 percent of the country's farmland and persuaded American corporations to come in to exploit the land and the poor.

It is doubtful that even 50 years of terror and 20,000 deaths in the last two years would have opened the press' eye to El Salvador, had not Reagan and Haig turned it into an ideological test case. They speak of "U.S. vital interests." But the larger story--long uncovered by the American press with the exception of a few reporters and editors--has been the ignored vital interests of Latin America's poor.