READING a book before criticizing it is as basic to fairness as a jury's hearing from witnesses before announcing a verdict. In a kangaroo court on ABC "Nightline" on June 2, jurors who had not read "The Price of Power: Kissinger in the Nixon White House" by Seymour Hersh assailed the book for spreading lies or smears about Henry Kissinger.

Hersh's 698-page work, based on 1,000 interviews and four years of research, offers details about Kissinger's lack of integrity, his two-faced dealings even with supposed friends and his amoral disregard for the effects of his decisions on the world's poor and powerless.

As foreman of the jury, Kissinger, after saying "I have not read the book," growled about "slimy accusations." Ted Koppel, another nonreader, said the "book paints a savage portrait." Lawrence Eagleburger, formerly a Kissinger aide who confessed to having read only news stories about the book, spoke of "a hatchet job." Winston Lord, also an ex-aide and nonreader, attacked Hersh's "reputation as a journalist, which is well-known to be unscrupulous across the board by many people."

On top of presenting three obviously self-interested critics who had not read the book, "Nightline's" choice of Kissinger, Eagleburger and Lord provided another assault to fairness. Each of the three had refused to be interviewed by Hersh. "I wasn't going to dignify this book by participating in it," said Lord, echoing the sentiments of the others. Thus, Hersh was getting it going and coming: Former officials who first refused to talk to him about their roles in public policy now had a forum to confront him on what they hadn't read.

Hersh, a victim of uninformed debate, took it with grace. A former New York Times investigative reporter whose alleged hatchetry and unscrupulousness has been missed by professional peers who have honored him with nearly every major journalism award there is, Hersh says Kissinger's greatest diplomacy "was with the press."

His accusation includes himself. He recalled being at The Times when Kissinger "played me like a violin, just like I think he's played many people in the press and has not been called for it."

Hersh's book represents some much-needed calling. It offers overdue accountability. In his game of power politics, Kissinger turned to the media when he needed help to avoid losses. Hersh records the favored stroking: "background interviews with trusted reporters." Some columnists let themselves become Kelly Girls to greatness. They took dictation from Kissinger as though secretarial work for the charming Henry were the highest art form of the journalist's craft.

Those who had higher regard for their trade than to put it at the command of Kissinger could find themselves under attack. In 1970 when Kissinger found some columns by Jack Anderson to be jarring, he induced other columnists to defend him.

Hersh, whose prose is tempered and anything but inflammatory, objects to the soft media treatment that Kissinger enjoyed. Discovering the lack of a moral base to Kissinger's decisions, Hersh stays with the fundamentals, ones that have nothing to do with a "savage" portrait. About officials like Kissinger, he says: "We do give them an awful lot of power, we do allow them to take our children and fight wars with them. I see nothing wrong with holding them to some pretty rigid standards of morality, of integrity."

Hersh now finds himself under attack by some Kissinger supporters in the press. Joseph Kraft, one of three newsmen who made brief comments on "Nightline," said he broke out "in prickly heat" because Hersh had earlier stated that his purpose in writing the book was to serve the truth as best a journalist could. For the overheated Kraft, who calls Kissinger "the most successful secretary of State we have had perhaps in our history," and alludes to the "smear purpose" of "The Price of Power," a reporter like Hersh symbolizes a repudiation. When he questions the morality and machinations of Kissinger, he confronts those in the press who mistakenly thought that by serving Kissinger's ends they were also serving noble ends.

Wait a minute, Hersh is saying in his fair-minded and powerful book, the two aren't the same. Kissinger was an official "blind to the human costs" of his policy decisions, from Vietnam and Cambodia to wiretapping his assistants. He was also blind to the inevitability that someone in the media would one day take a long hard look at his cunning. Thanks to Hersh, a reporter with moral sensitivity, the day is here.