Say it for Norman Mailer: There's something quirkily admirable, even touching, about his tenacious fidelity to a bad idea. Although he has of late acknowledged feeling "guilty" about his support for the release from prison of Jack Henry Abbott, who subsequently killed a man, he does not seem to have altered his conviction that, as he said of Abbott a year ago, "culture is worth a little risk." How else are we to explain his defense of Richard Lowell Stratton, the self-described practitioner of "investigative journalism" and newly convicted conspirator in the drug trade?

To be sure, Mailer and Stratton have known each other for a number of years; Mailer's willingness to testify last week on Stratton's behalf may have been primarily an appealing demonstration of personal loyalty. But his remarks about the case in and out of court leave little question that he is fundamentally sympathetic to the argument that Stratton's work on what Mailer described in his testimony as "a long novel" about the marijuana trade justified a close involvement with persons operating in that trade--an involvement, he said later, such as "any investigative reporter" may undertake in the line of work.

A similar argument was advanced in Stratton's behalf by Doris Kearns, who described him as having been "frustrated" because he could not find a subject suitable to his aspiration to be a writer. At last he found one in drug smuggling, though, and he "became more and more absorbed in the story he was following." Eventually, she said, "I saw that what had begun as a subject of study, an investigation, had now become a life for him, become his world, in a way." Are we therefore to believe that Stratton's association with what the government describes as a "conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute marijuana and hashish" was excusable on the ground that it would help make his book authentic and accurate? It seems, unless I have completely misinterpreted what Mailer and Kearns said, that we are.

This is a subtle variation on the theme Mailer advanced on behalf of Jack Abbott. Their acquaintance began, it will be recalled, with a series of letters from Abbott to Mailer describing his life in prison, letters that Mailer found to be arresting and powerful. One event followed another in fairly rapid sequence: The letters were collected and published as a book ("In the Belly of the Beast"), Abbott was released from prison, he killed a man after a trivial misunderstanding, he is now back in prison. Mailer said last year: "I'm willing to gamble with certain elements in society to save this man's talent . . . At least let Abbott become a writer . . . It is far too easy to say send him away forever. Society demands you take certain risks."

Mailer believed then, and perhaps still believes, that Abbott was capable of art and that society must accept "a little risk" if the end result is art, or "culture." To his credit, he makes no such claims for Stratton, of whose manuscript he says, "I wouldn't guarantee that it's publishable, but it's pretty good." Not even Stratton makes exalted claims for himself. He told Curt Suplee of The Washington Post: "I never had a tendency toward literary writing. My stuff tends to be action-type narrative. I was brought up watching movies, not reading books."

Indeed, the evidence suggests that Stratton's magnum opus is "investigative journalism" masquerading, for whatever reason, as fiction, and it is there that the real rub lies. For the argument pressed by Stratton's lawyers is that his "investigative research" entitles him to liberties not enjoyed by ordinary citizens in the pursuit of ordinary enterprises--that, if you will, journalism is worth a little risk. If this sounds vaguely familiar, it's because in recent years it has become something of a minor law of journalism: The story is of greater consequence than the means and effects of getting it.

Presumably just about everyone has by now heard of what may be the most flamboyant and distasteful manifestation of this rule of procedure: the case of the two television cameramen in Alabama who filmed an unemployed man's efforts to set himself on fire and who did not attempt to stop him until he had done serious injury to himself. Though both men later expressed regret at the incident, both maintained that their obligation was to get the story--or, in this case, the film--and not to act as self-appointed policemen. Viewed clinically, the argument seems to be that coming up with a hot scoop matters more than good citizenship or even simple humanity.

Precisely how this argument differs from that made in Stratton's behalf is difficult to figure. His lawyer told the jury: "The fact that Richard Stratton is a writer does not entitle him to be found not guilty. But it does entitle him to be in certain places at certain times." That's a nifty piece of hocus pocus that you can interpret just about any old way you'd like, one such way no doubt being that since Stratton as "writer" (an identity that, in point of fact, seems to exist largely within Stratton's own mind) is entitled "to be in certain places at certain times," he is innocent of any lawbreaking that might occur in those places and times. The operative principle seems to be: Read all about it!

Cut through all the cant and what you have is that (a) the writer or journalist is bound by a higher law, or a different law, or something like that, you know, and that (b) since only the writer or journalist knows what this law is, only he can interpret and enforce it. In the case of Richard Stratton, is the higher law that if the end result is "a long novel" about the drug trade, it's all in a day's work for him to play pat-a-cake with the folks who make that trade go?

That is what his defense seemed to have been saying, but the jury, which evidently was reading the lower law--the plain folks' law--wasn't buying it.