MIAMI IS hell on reporters, with press imbroglios ranked second only to hurricanes as the most common natural disasters there. "The Mean Season," a steady if too-stolid mystery, focuses on a Miami reporter -- like "Absence of Malice" before it -- and the misuse of power by the press. Specifically, "Season" asks whether the press serves the public or itself best.

Based on a novel by Miami Herald reporter John Katzenbach, the movie investigates big- city journalism, drawing a broad line between the urban giants and the small-town weeklies. Kurt Russell, sturdy like a good-looking tank, stars as Malcolm Anderson, a burnt-out police reporter who has to choose between a career at The New York Times and a Colorado weekly.

Mariel Hemingway, adequate if unevolved from earlier roles, is his fianc,e, an elementary school teacher who wisely encourages him to go West, since both of them only need to put on flannel shirts to pass for Coloradans. (She has been hitting the trail mix.)

Malcolm's mountain hiatus is delayed when a murder case becomes his chance at a Pulitzer Prize and he is lured into a one-on-one relationship with a serial murderer (Richard Jordan). That becomes more important than his love for his fianc,e. And he becomes a page- one junkie.

The overriding issue is the paradoxical relationship between a reporter and a source. In this case, the murderer kills for attention, noting that good behavior goes unnoticed. And the reporter writes for attention, hoping for a shot on the Today Show, a mention in Time.

But does the reporter do more than his job? Does he collaborate? Is he guilty, too? It's a good question, well put and often provoking, though not pursued with great energy. Overall the film seems a little flat, a little stale. The clouds roil and the thunder claps like a gun report. The lightning goes off like a photographer's flash gun. We see the atmospherics, and hear them, but never feel the heat. Director Philip ("The Grey Fox") Borsos' style is too dogged to transform "Mean Season" into a true thriller, though it serves well as a message movie on what news is fit to print.

MEAN SEASON (R) -- At area theaters.