In a riveting picture carried by newspapers and magazines nationwide last fall, a Los Angeles firefighter doused his head with water from a back-yard swimming pool while the luxury home behind him was consumed by a spectacular blaze.

The Los Angeles Times, which was preparing to enter the photo for a Pulitzer Prize, now says it was staged by one of the paper's veteran photographers. The Times has suspended staffer Mike Meadows without pay for one week and canceled plans to enter the picture in all prize competitions.

Meadows says he has done nothing wrong. But Larry Armstrong, the paper's director of pho tography, called the picture a "fabrication."

"We regard it as extremely serious," he said. "This is a firing offense. ... When you manipulate the situation, you manipulate the news."

When he discovered how the photograph was taken, Armstrong said, "It was probably one of the worst days of my life."

Meadows, 52, who joined the Times as an advertising employee in 1961, said yesterday: "I deny categorically asking or telling any fireman to pose for me in front of a pool. I may have been guilty of saying this would make a nice shot, but to the best of my recollection, I did not directly ask him to do that. ... I've been doing breaking news stories for years and years and I've never in my life set up a picture."

Meadows snapped the picture Oct. 27 as brush fires swept through Southern California, destroying more than 400 homes. He captured a Los Angeles County firefighter, Mike Alves, at the pool in Altadena after Alves had run out of water pressure to combat the raging fires.

Meadows was "quite proud" of the picture, Armstrong said, and assured an editor on deadline that the scene had unfolded "just like that." Meadows worked his way onto the photo staff two decades ago after years of photographing fires and disasters on his own time.

As the Times was preparing its prize entries last month, Armstrong grew concerned over rumors that the photo was staged and had his assignment editor, Fred Sweets, track down Alves. The firefighter said Meadows suggested that he go to the pool and pour water on his head, according to Armstrong. Alves yesterday declined to comment.

After Meadows provided his explanation in a meeting with editors, Armstrong said, Editor Shelby Coffey III ordered the suspension. Armstrong said Meadows will be transferred to a non-editorial job.

At the Times' request, the Associated Press last week notified its clients that the photo had been killed and should not be published again.

Two other news organizations had trouble with staged photos last year. USA Today suspended and fined a reporter for staging a picture of Los Angeles gang members holding weapons. And Time magazine apologized for running pictures purporting to show child prostitutes in Russia, which the magazine later acknowledged were faked.

Armstrong said Meadows has been treated with "compassion" because he is "a good person" who risked his life to help other staffers during the 1992 Los Angeles riots.

Exodus

The brain drain continues at Knight-Ridder's Washington bureau. Mark Thompson, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Pentagon reporter, is leaving for Time magazine. And Susan Bennett, who until recently covered the State Department, is joining USA Today's editorial board.

Five of the 14 national reporters have now left amid grumbling about beat reshuffling and inexperienced editors. Ellen Warren, Carl Cannon and Owen Ullman, all big-name veterans, have departed in recent months.

"The new editors aren't cutting the mustard," one staffer said. "A lot of us are throwing up our hands and looking for work elsewhere."

Richard Oppel, the former Charlotte Observer editor who became bureau chief last fall, said that "we've brought on some talented people, so I feel good about the bureau. Washington experience is very valuable, but bringing in people from our papers who are closer to the people consuming what we produce is important too."

Thompson, for his part, said that "this new opportunity at Time is an extraordinary one," while Bennett spoke of "a chance to have a voice at America's largest newspaper."

Gentlemanly Exchange

Much of political Washington has been buzzing about William F. Powers's rhetorical assault on Sidney Blumenthal. Powers, a Washington Post financial reporter who writes "The Magazine Reader" column, recently lambasted Blumenthal, The New Yorker's Washington editor, as a "spokesman and booster" for Bill Clinton who turns out "cream puffs" about the president. Perhaps Blumenthal's column "should be renamed 'In the Tank,' " Powers wrote.

Blumenthal said he's accustomed to political criticism, having long dished it out, but that he was "slightly taken aback by the tone of personal vehemence." He questioned whether the attack might be related to a negative review Blumenthal wrote in the New York Times of Bob Woodward's book "The Commanders" -- a book on which Powers was the principal researcher.

"The question did occur to me about whether there was some personal score-settling going on here," Blumenthal said.

Powers, who has never met Blumenthal, dismissed the suggestion as "crazy. ... The fact is, I had completely forgotten about that review. I was really just writing on the content of his columns. I felt my tone was justified because his piece was a good example of a pro-Clinton point of view."

Cohen Conundrum

While Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen has occasionally been sighted in New York, he is not the 25-year-old freelancer named Rich Cohen who was assigned to a controversial New Yorker article on Court TV. As reported last week, The New Yorker has apologized for several errors in the piece.