Osborn Elliott, dean of the graduate school of journalism at Columbia University, said yesterday he had turned down the job of editor of U.S. News & World Report because he believed owner Mortimer Zuckerman would not give him "a very high degree of control or autonomy."

Elliott, a former editor in chief of Newsweek, said he decided against taking the job after extended discussions with Zuckerman, the chairman and editor in chief of U.S. News.

"I felt that to undertake such a job would require if not total, then a very high degree of control or autonomy, and that the lines of command would have to be ultraclear," Elliott said in a telephone interview.

"There had to be one person in charge of the magazine . . . as we talked it became clear to me that he wasn't willing to cede that kind of power."

Zuckerman, who purchased U.S. News in 1984, said in a statement: "I had several conversations about the editorship of U.S. News with Os Elliott as I also have had with certain senior staff members of the magazine. Os and I could not resolve certain major considerations that the staff and I share, so we decided, with friendship and respect, to end our explorations."

Last month Shelby Coffey III, who had been the magazine's editor for about 10 months, resigned to become executive editor of the Dallas Times Herald. Coffey, who had been an assistant managing editor of The Washington Post before taking the U.S. News position, was reportedly upset with Zuckerman for usurping editorial control of the magazine. Zuckerman had told friends that Coffey was too slow in making decisions, as U.S. News works to change its image and compete more vigorously in the weekly magazine market.

Coffey's job is being filled temporarily by Senior Managing Editor David Gergen, former White House communications director. Magazine sources said that in spite of Gergen's political background, many longtime staff journalists favored Gergen for the editorship.

Elliott, 61, said he sent Zuckerman a letter on Saturday saying that he was "flattered" by the "rather exciting possibility to create a great and interesting new magazine." He would not comment on reports that Zuckerman was offering a salary of $350,000 a year plus bonuses.

After discussions that began in late January, Elliott said he began to get a "growing sense" that Zuckerman would not give him what he considered to be the necessary authority. "I had said that I didn't want any editorial title above [the editor's] on the masthead," Elliott said, referring to the fact that Zuckerman has the title of editor in chief. "He never quite took to it. I don't care about the title, but I cared about the authority and the signals that would go out."