How do newspapers cover the arts? Very badly indeed was the consensus of a panel discussion yesterday at the American Society of Newspaper Editors convention.

In a program billed as "The Critics vs. the Criticized" at the Sheraton Washington Hotel, cultural writers Judith Martin and Hilton Kramer blamed uninformed editors. Humorist Calvin Trillin got in a few plugs for his next book. And soprano Beverly Sills, general director of the New York City Opera, chewed up the scenery with a recitative against incompetent critics.

"If as little care were given to hiring the sports editor as goes to hiring the music editor," said Sills, "you'd have a very funny sports page. I've been reviewed by a young woman who spent two years studying the flute at a small school in California . . .

"If I were a young singer today, I think I would slash my wrists. I have never seen music writing in this country at such a low ebb. There are some dreadful writers on newspapers today. How dare they get a job on a newspaper, where they're supposed to enlighten me and interest me? How dare they bore me and waste my time?

"My God," she continued, appassionatamente, "who is auditioning these people?"

Her audience of about 500 newspaper editors and publishers -- the auditioners, as Sills would have it -- responded with sheepish laughter and scattered applause. Trillin later deadpanned, "I just want to say, Beverly, that I thought that the flute lady gave you a fair review."

Trillin, who writes for The New Yorker and The Nation, said there should be more hard reporting on the arts beat, "just like any other news story."

Martin, a former drama and film reviewer for The Washington Post who is syndicated as "Miss Manners," blamed editors who mistakenly believe "that 'real people' like junk culture, that honest people prefer the bad to the good."

Kramer, editor of The New Criterion, added, "The trouble with newspaper editors is that they never go to a museum on a Sunday afternoon." Asked how small-town newspapers with limited budgets could provide competent arts coverage, he suggested that they pool their resources with other papers to hire a regional critic.

Sills said newspapers should inform their readers when the people writing about cultural events have no expertise. She said the Cleveland Plain Dealer should have done that several years ago, when "someone from the copy desk" was sent to appraise the legendary George Szell's conducting in a performance of the Cleveland Orchestra.

"I wrote a letter to the editor -- who, unfortunately, was my husband," Sills said. Her husband, Peter B. Greenough, was a member of the paper's editorial page staff at the time.