In the avalanche of summit news this week, one curious absence went unnoted: When Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev met with media bosses Wednesday afternoon, The New York Times was missing.

Behind that empty seat at the Soviet Embassy was a heated debate about whether a major newspaper should participate in such an event. Taking one side was Executive Editor Max Frankel, who reportedly decided to boycott Gorbachev's meeting with news leaders because he did not want to be a part of "Gorby's PR circus," as one Times reporter put it.

As another recalled, Frankel said that after he saw television footage with Gorbachev lecturing a panoply of American intellectuals on Tuesday afternoon, he decided: "I don't want to be used that way, and I don't want The New York Times to be used that way."

Taking the other point of view were many of the stars of Frankel's staff and most other important U.S. news organizations. Their view was that the one person who should not turn down an opportunity to ask questions of a Soviet leader is a journalist.

Frankel's decision so provoked the Soviet specialists at The Times that some were thinking about protesting to the executive editor. Such a rebuff of Gorbachev, these specialists feared, might lead the Soviets to retaliate in some way against the paper's Moscow bureau.

Others asked why a good journalist -- one who was formerly a Moscow correspondent -- would pass up an opportunity to question a Soviet party boss.

Frankel, for his part, sent word through an assistant that he did not want to comment on the matter. Craig Whitney, The Times' Washington bureau chief, said he went to the Soviet Embassy hoping to take Frankel's place but the Soviets said nyet to a substitution.

Frankel's decision meant that the Times staff had to rely completely on others who had attended the meeting as well as a pool report from journalists who were present for a small part of the session.

Others who participated -- including Lou Boccardi, president of The Associated Press, Katharine Graham, chairman of The Washington Post Co., and Tom Johnson, publisher of the Los Angeles Times -- fed news to their own reporters covering the summit or wrote stories themselves.

The Wall Street Journal the next day ran a long and thorough story by "staff reporter" Warren H. Phillips. Phillips is chairman of the board of Dow Jones & Co. Inc., which owns The Journal.

"There's no question in my mind that it was worth it," Richard M. Smith, editor in chief of Newsweek, said yesterday as he was working on his own version for next week's magazine. "The chance to look a leader in the eye, to hear the tone of the voice, get a sense of the man, far outweighed the circus aspect of it, and I don't think that particular session was a circus to start with. Compared to other events at the summit, this was a public relations non-event."

Letters to Be Editor At the Los Angeles Times, four top editors spent a good part of October depriving themselves of such California weekend pleasures as sun and surf. Instead they were in their offices working away on their "term papers," due Dec. 1.

The "papers" were massive, comprehensive documents designed to explain why the authors wanted to be editor of the Times when the present occupant, William Thomas, retires in June 1989. Each writer was urged to elaborate on suggestions about the newspaper's future. At least one document numbered close to 100 pages, according to a Times source.

Times Publisher Tom Johnson has told the staff that he wants to be ready with a replacement for Thomas by next summer. To get the ball rolling, he asked for the assessments from George J. Cotliar, the Times' managing editor; Shelby Coffey, deputy associate editor; and Dennis Britton and Noel Greenwood, deputy managing editors, sources at the paper said.

Johnson, who said he did not want to comment yet on the selection process, has told senior writers for the paper that it will be his decision and that he will consult with Times Mirror Co. President David Laventhol.

Johnson has also said that the race is still wide open and that even some outside candidates may be considered before the process is over, the sources said.

Summit Tidbits When President Reagan was scheduled to meet with four columnists early Wednesday afternoon, the anointed ones waited in the hallway outside the Oval Office. R. Emmett Tyrrell Jr., editor in chief of the conservative American Spectator and once a Reagan booster, could be heard making jokes about the timing of the session and how it would interfere with the president's nap ...

White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater got something of an electric handshake when he met Mikhail Gorbachev earlier in the week. As Fitzwater was announced in the receiving line, Gorbachev began wagging his finger at the Reagan spokesman. "You're the one who said, 'This is a summit between old enemies,' " the Soviet leader said. "If you said that in my country, I would scold you."

Fitzwater, who said the comment came out a little stronger than he meant it, replied that it was okay, he gets enough scolding in the White House press room every day.

Washington Times Editor in Chief Arnaud de Borchgrave, who said this was the 13th summit he had attended, was upset that his paper was not going to be given a seat at Gorbachev's speech and press conference Thursday evening. So de Borchgrave, who has been scalding the Soviets for years because of their disinformation efforts, asked for help from the Reagan administration. Finally, The Times got a seat thanks to U.S. Information Agency Director Charles Wick, who had been talking to the Soviet media establishment about how both sides would try to "lower their voices," as he put it, and stamp out disinformation from both sides.