FOR A FEW BRIEF, SHINING MOMENTS, STEPHEN HESS believed that what he said on television really mattered.

A white-haired Brookings Institution scholar and former White House aide who has published 10 books on public policy, Hess is a thoughtful fellow with a polished ease before the camera. He's one of those names in every producer's Rolodex, a man who can sound authoritative on just about any subject. But he has also come to understands how the television game is played. He was hardly surprised, then, when his phone rang soon after the Supreme Court cleared the way for tighter state restrictions on abortion with its Webster ruling in the summer of 1989. Cable News Network needed a guest in a hurry.

Hess tried to beg off. He isn't a lawyer, he explained. He doesn't follow state legislatures. Really, he wasn't the right person. The woman from CNN didn't care. Hess would fill the bill nicely. Once on the air, however, he made a rare error, mixing up the Democratic and Republican positions on abortion.

"No one noticed," Hess says in a dramatic whisper. "No one in the world, except my wife, noticed."

Once it all seemed so, well, significant. When television reporters began calling him years ago, "I thought they were really interested in my opinion," Hess says. "I would be very worried -- did they use something I had said that was stupid, or controversial, or profound? Then I realized: I was a spear carrier. To have used any of those things would have thrown the story out of kilter. They didn't bring me in to have some profound thought. This was a story about why Bob Dole was running for president or George Bush changed his speech. I was supposed to say something that was almost a scene-changer, to switch from one piece of film to another."

Stephen Hess is one of Washington's sound bite superstars, an elite fraternity of academics, politicos, journalists, lawyers, lobbyists, strategists, retired colonels, authors, analysts and activists who fill the screen with snatches of breathtakingly conventional wisdom. The glibbest of the glib, they can handicap a campaign in seven or eight seconds, predict the outcome of war in two or three minutes or go toe to toe with Pat Buchanan for half an hour, depending on the show that requires their services. You see them on Brinkley, on Koppel, on "Crossfire," on morning shows and evening shows and middle-of-the-night shows. The overwhelming majority are white, male and moderate to conservative. They are journalism's usual suspects, the pundits and pontificators whose market value is determined by the number of media message slips on their desks.

For every Steve Hess, there are dozens of experts with equally impressive credentials who never emerge from the mysterious filtering process that determines who gets on the air. These people are widely respected in their fields, often appearing at conferences and opining on the op-ed pages and churning out policy tomes at prestigious think tanks. But somehow "MacNeil/Lehrer" never calls.

"There are so many people out there who know so much, but they're lousy guests," says Tammy Haddad, who has been booking people for "Larry King Live" for six years. "You can never forget it is television. They have to be able to explain it in such a way that my mother in Pittsburgh understands what they're talking about. We're competing with 60 channels at prime time. If we don't get people interested, they will spin the dial."

Gaining admission to this exclusive club is one of those unspoken Washington mating rituals, a sly seduction that unfolds in the incestuous netherworld where media and politics intersect. As the number of talk shows has multiplied, television has developed an insatiable hunger for experts, and, in turn, more and more experts have decided they need television.

Why? It's partly the money, of course. Most shows pay little or nothing, but few would deny that TV stardom has its tangible rewards, from bigger book contracts to five-figure lecture fees. Far more important is the fact that television provides a kind of electronic megaphone, the ability to make one's voice heard above the cacophony of Washington policy debates. George Will the writer, no matter how incisive his syndicated column, can never hope to match the influence of Will the Sunday morning inquisitor. The camera performs like a bubbling elixir that with a single gulp can transform the imbiber from policy wonk to Wunderkind.

This isn't just a Washington phenomenon; it says a lot about the pervasive influence of television in all corners of American life. But it also says something about the nature of ambition in the nation's capital, where, unlike on Wall Street or in Hollywood, the overriding lust is not for money or power but for recognition as a serious opinion-monger.

Hess, 58, whose talents include an unerring grasp of the synergy between television and politics, puts it simply.

"Mostly it's an ego trip," he says. "They're powerful because people think they're powerful. It's like cotton candy. You bite into it -- what's there? Where's the power?

"It's not the power of ideas. It's not the financial power. It's celebrity. It's people thinking that somehow you're more worthwhile or significant because you've been on television."

Ah, the perfect sound bite. HACKS AND FLACKS

The seeds of Bob Beckel's television career were planted on November 6, 1984, when Walter Mondale lost 49 states in his quest for the White House. Beckel was his campaign manager.

"I decided I didn't want to do any more campaigns," Beckel says. "When you manage the largest loss in American politics, nobody is particularly asking you, either."

A former college football player who favors shirt sleeves and suspenders, the broad-shouldered Beckel has found a new way to play the political game without getting roughed up on the field. An unabashed liberal who worked in the Carter administration, he still offers advice to Democrats and schmoozes with consultants and keeps track of who's up and who's down. Only now he gets paid to yak about it on the tube, as host of Fox's "Off the Record," substitute host on "Crossfire," frequent contributor to "Good Morning America" and so on.

"It's a way for me to keep my finger in the socket," says Beckel, 42. "I can still get juiced up for the campaigns, but I don't have to do them. I can go to Iowa and New Hampshire, do my stand-ups and then go to bed."

After Mondale's defeat, Beckel formed what grew into an 18-person consulting firm. From his posh Washington Harbour offices, he plotted strategy for such clients as the Professional Golfers' Association and the National Association of Trade and Technical Schools. He also launched a systematic campaign to raise his television profile.

"The fact that you've got some name recognition inevitably helps you when you make a pitch for a client," says Beckel, who advises corporate spokespersons on how to handle -- what else? -- television appearances.

When the '88 campaign began, Beckel was like the veteran coach ready to join the play-by-play man in the booth. He practiced his new trade at Conus Communications, a syndicated television service, fielding more than 100 interviews a week.

"I'd sit there on a stool at 1825 K Street," Beckel says. "They'd hand you a card -- now you're talking to Bill in Memphis. You'd hear the same questions over and over and over again, night after night. George Bush would come in third in Iowa: 'Do you think George Bush is in trouble?' "

Sometimes Beckel had to struggle to stay awake, but at $300 to $400 for each three-minute spot, the pay was hard to beat. Besides, it was fun. "I used to do a lot of television commercials, so I think in 30-second pieces," he says.

Television, says Beckel, is "this mystical gateway in Washington that sort of separates you out . . . Since I started to do television on a regular basis, my speaking engagements have gone up dramatically. No question there's a direct relationship. I can write a good solid column about a presidential campaign in the L.A. Times and nobody will pay a hell of a lot of attention. I get on 'Crossfire' and people seem to think that's more important."

Early last year, Beckel auditioned for "Off the Record," a new chat show aimed at the baby-boomer set, and was chosen as moderator. At Fox's urging, he agreed to do no direct lobbying on the Hill. In fact, he's the one now being lobbied by ambitious young journalists who want to be on the show. "It's amazing how quickly the word spreads that you're looking," he says.

Beckel is sensitive to the notion that he might be exploiting his new-found fame for commercial gain. "I could stop now, take advantage of the 12-month glow of exposure, take a lot of clients and go out and become a Washington influence-peddler," he boasts. But nooo, he'd rather be on television.

Bob Beckel is hardly the first political operative to work the journalistic side of the street -- in print or television, as commentator or reporter. The Democratic lineup also includes NBC Washington bureau chief Tim Russert (a former aide to Mario Cuomo and Pat Moynihan); New Republic editor Hendrik Hertzberg (a former Jimmy Carter speechwriter); San Francisco Examiner Washington bureau chief Chris Matthews (Tip O'Neill's former press aide); James Fallows, Washington editor of the Atlantic (another former Carter speechwriter); New York Times columnist Leslie Gelb (a former assistant secretary of state) and Washington Post Outlook editor Jodie Allen (a former deputy assistant secretary of labor).

Among the Republicans, David Gergen was Ronald Reagan's communications director before becoming editor at large of U.S. News & World Report and a regular "MacNeil/Lehrer" analyst. Pat Buchanan succeeded Gergen in the Reagan White House before taking the helm at "Crossfire" and "Capital Gang." John Buckley is an ex-Republican Party spokesman and Jack Kemp aide who now does PR work and dishes opinions on the tube. Terry Eastland, who among other things opines on the media for the American Spectator, flacked for Attorney General Ed Meese. If one traces the genealogy back to the Nixon White House, one finds John McLaughlin, Pat Buchanan (again), ABC's Diane Sawyer and New York Times columnist William Safire. Excavate back to the Johnson administration and there is LBJ press secretary Bill Moyers.

This influx of former operatives into journalistic or quasi-journalistic roles troubles some of their new colleagues. Baltimore Sun columnist Jules Witcover speaks disparagingly of Beckel and other crossover commentators, saying they "make it difficult for viewers to distinguish between us hacks and those flacks. The press's credibility is damaged by the perception that there is really no difference between people who spend their lives in pursuit of a modicum of truth and those who peddle propaganda." Especially, he says, when the latter "come in and pluck off some of the choice jobs in journalism."

Beckel and other revolving-door types argue that their brand of political analysis is far superior to that of newsroom lifers -- a choice between "guys who have spent their lives in back rooms" and "guys who have spent their lives hanging out in hallways," as Chris Matthews once put it.

"It's pretty clear where they're coming from," says William Schneider, an American Enterprise Institute scholar whose pundit credentials include CNN, the Atlantic, National Journal and the Los Angeles Times. "They are selling a point of view."

But television, with its quick cuts and vague ID tags, has a way of blurring partisan lines and eradicating previous history. Shouldn't viewers be reminded that the guy popping off about George Bush's latest proposal was plotting White House strategy while Bush was vice president, or -- as in Beckel's case -- running campaigns against him?

Beckel is exasperated by this line of criticism. While he gives informal advice to Democrats from time to time, he says, he no longer gets paid for it. And he's through running campaigns.

"I have never said I was a journalist," Beckel says. "What I do is give opinions as a political analyst. Somehow the assumption is that we're pulling the wool over people's eyes out in TV land." Besides, he says, "Nobody ever said journalists have the market cornered on television appearances."

On a recent "Good Morning America," it was Beckel and John Buckley, the former pols, who had the market cornered on political analysis. They were matching one-liners about whether members of Congress such as Sam Nunn had been hurt by opposing the Persian Gulf War. "Making Sam Nunn into a dove is like making Mother Teresa into a mugger," Beckel declared. "It's not gonna happen."

When the talk turned to Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf and whether he should run for public office, Beckel used his own experience to frame the issue. "Forget it," he said. "The guy has got to write books and go on the lecture circuit. He'll make a fortune!" 'CAN'T WE GET ANYONE ELSE BUT ORNSTEIN?'

There's a chicken-and-egg question here: Does TV make the expert, plucking anonymous talkmasters from obscurity? Or are there hordes of expert wannabes out there, flacking themselves relentlessly until they make it onto the small screen?

Let's peek backstage at the "Today" show. It is 10:30 a.m. on a recent Tuesday, and producers in Washington, New York and London are having a conference call about the next day's guests.

"What about Liddy Dole?" says New York producer Jeff Zucker. Former labor secretary Elizabeth Dole, who now heads the American Red Cross, is just back from the Persian Gulf and wants to talk about relief efforts there.

"I thought we didn't want her," says Washington producer Nancy Nathan.

"We didn't," Zucker says. "Her guy keeps hounding me. He's called me at least 15 times." Dole is vetoed.

"Today" has two choice interview segments, at 7:09 and 7:16 a.m. A piece on famine in Africa had been planned for the 7:16. Nathan pitches two Washington stories from her Nebraska Avenue NW office -- a group demanding more funding for Head Start, and a follow-up on a New York Times story on infant mortality. There are no takers.

Janet Pearce, another New York producer, mentions a Supreme Court case involving a man who filed for bankruptcy to avoid making divorce payments. "We might be able to get the wife who filed the suit," she says.

Zucker has a better idea. "Who wants to do James Brown, the godfather of soul, at 7:16?" he asks. Nathan thinks he is joking, but others on the line like the idea of showcasing the singer, who has just gotten out of prison.

"Then we can do African famine later in the show because it just ain't that interesting," Zucker says. "It's not a show-starter." (As it turned out, African famine was bumped for an Egyptian official visiting New York, a Money magazine reporter talking about tax cheating and an economics writer pushing his book. James Brown appeared later in the show.)

There was a time, a little more than a decade ago, when "Today" was one of a handful of shows interested in public policy types. Now its "bookers" must scratch and claw for guests against the likes of "PrimeTime Live," "Nightline," "Nightwatch," "Newsmaker Saturday," "Capital Gang," "Evans & Novak," "The Insiders," "Newsmaker Sunday," "John McLaughlin's One on One" and "Inside Washington." And that competition has spawned a cottage industry of facilitators whose job is to get people television exposure.

"Universities pitch us with their earthquake experts, with their plane crash experts," says Tammy Haddad, the Larry King producer. "When there's a major story like Iraq, you get all these faxes from the universities, the PR firms, the book publishers: 'My person spent a week in Iraq.' 'My person flew over Iraq.' "

Haddad says publishers even send her tapes of potential authors, trying to determine if the person is talk-show material before signing a contract. "The new John Updike may not be discovered because producers have decided he's not a good guest," she says. "You've got to be able to sell it on television."

Richard Harris, the live-interview producer for "Nightline," is also snowed under by fax attacks. "You have a sense the presidential campaign is about to begin when certain offices call you suggesting certain senators might be on the program," he says. "People use the media, and I guess we use people at times. Someone is looking perhaps to increase their lecture invitations, or promoting a book. Maybe someone is looking for tenure at their university."

If a guest hasn't been on before, producers will "pre-interview" the person over the phone in the guise of a casual chat. Do they sound succinct? Are they feisty? Or are they long-winded and cerebral, the kind that Haddad calls "digit-heads" and "number-crunchers"? Boring experts don't get called back.

Still, it's easier to use your Rolodex favorites than to go through all that, which helps explain why familiar television faces tend to get more and more familiar. In a crisis, producers have little time to pre-interview anyone. They need instant experts instantly, preferably those with prestigious affiliations, like Georgetown University or the Heritage Foundation, that can be superimposed under their chins. That's when producers are most likely to round up the usual suspects.

When Iraq invaded Kuwait on August 2, "Nightline" had to shelve its scheduled program on lesbian custody battles and find folks who could argue about Saddam Hussein. "Today" went to an expanded schedule and had to fill up the time with war experts. "We were just slamming them in the chair as fast as we could get them in here," Nancy Nathan says.

Those who get slammed in the chair too often can sometimes suffer from overexposure. Norman Ornstein, the congressional analyst from AEI, has become so ubiquitous in newspapers and on talk shows that magazines sometimes spoof him as a quote machine. Sometimes this leads to a temporary ban as producers demand: "Can't we get anyone else but Ornstein?"

One reliable reservoir of blathering guests is Capitol Hill, where a couple of dozen members of Congress are renowned for being able to hold forth on any subject, from abortion to arms control. Newt Gingrich. Sam Nunn. Henry Hyde. Les Aspin. Bob Dole. Pat Schroeder. Alan Simpson. Richard Lugar. House Speaker Tom Foley and Minority Leader Bob Michel often appear as a left-right duo. Steve Solarz did nearly every talk show in America during the Persian Gulf War, strutting his stuff as a liberal Democrat who supported Bush.

In a public policy sense, all shows are hardly created equal. Serious, longer-format programs like "MacNeil/Lehrer" and "Nightline," for example, pride themselves on being forums for dignified debate.

Peggy Robinson, a senior producer at "MacNeil/Lehrer," says that "the questions we ask are not designed to be combative, but to draw out information from the guests. We don't try to ambush people. We're not trying to black-and-white an issue -- to just have the two extremes -- but to expand it to people who could provide the gray in the middle."

The network newscasts, local newscasts and morning shows vary in their seriousness of purpose, but all place a premium on brevity. In an era when viewers are presumed to have short attention spans, advanced technology enables producers to splice together clips from more and more guests, who are thus allotted less and less time to speak their piece.

Then there are the verbal-combat shows such as "Crossfire" and "The McLaughlin Group," where high-decibel voices often carry the day, and call-in shows like "Larry King Live," which might have John Sununu one night and Arnold Schwarzenegger the next. "We need someone with intensity so he doesn't get creamed by the other guest," says Tammy Haddad. "Bob Dole is a great guest. He's intense. The Iraqis were great guests. They were so dynamic."

What about quieter, more articulate speakers? "Articulate," she sniffs, "is a word they use at PBS." THE VERY MODEL OF A MODERN TV COLONEL

William J. Taylor Jr., decorated Army combat veteran, former West Point professor and holder of a doctorate in international relations, had been in Washington less than a year when he got his first call from "Nightline."

It was March 1982, and a group of Argentinian civilians had just landed on the Falkland Islands. Taylor had been quoted on the situation in that morning's New York Times -- he'd had to check a map to make sure he knew where the Falklands were -- and now Ted Koppel wanted him on that night.

"I called all my former students at West Point who were lieutenants and colonels all over the world," Taylor says. "I called the defense attache in Argentina." The retired colonel went on "Nightline" and boldly predicted that the British would rout the Argentinians in three months. The war was over in less than 90 days. A colleague called Taylor "the luckiest son of a gun in the world."

With his steel-gray hair, ramrod-stiff posture, owlish glasses, gold pinky ring, monogrammed white shirt and neat pocket handkerchief, Bill Taylor is the picture of military precision. He is vice president of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a right-leaning K Street think tank whose part-time "councilors" include Henry Kissinger, Zbigniew Brzezinski, James Schlesinger, Adm. William Crowe -- enough big names to fill a week's worth of talk shows.

Ask Taylor how often he's been on television and he marches over to a file cabinet and produces a 13-page re'sume', listing every broadcast appearance from "Good Morning America" (14 times) and CNN (14 times) to XTRA radio, San Diego (4 times). The document also lists his 15 books, academic honors, lecture appearances, quotations in publications (from Time to Asahi Shimbun) and, for good measure, family profile (married, six children).

What's his secret? "Debate training," snaps Taylor, 57. "I've been a debater for 45 years," dating back to his days at Episcopal Academy in Merion, Pa. "Debaters know how to organize on their feet. The biggest thing a debater has is the ability to listen to your opponent, take that argument, turn it around, turn it inside out."

After matching wits with the best minds at the National War College, where he was a visiting professor, Taylor isn't about to be muscled by some half-witted TV interviewer. "If I don't think the initial question is right, I won't answer it," he says. "I'll answer another question I wished they'd asked and try to lead them in the right direction."

The ex-colonel is a team player. He says he doesn't appear on television for personal reasons, but for the greater glory of CSIS and its mission of informing the public. "When we're on television, we're up there as individuals, but it says CSIS under our name," Taylor says. "There's nothing as important as coming back from 'Good Morning America' and, on the elevator, to have a secretary or a vice president say, 'Bill, you were right on. It was terrific.' That's the payoff."

There is another payoff, of course. Taylor gives 175 speeches a year at corporate retreats, colleges, trade associations and overseas gatherings, charging $1,500 to $10,000 a pop. (He gives half his speeches to CSIS backers at no charge.)

Rising each morning at 4:30, Taylor reads The Washington Post and New York Times cover to cover and reviews a report from what he calls "Bill Taylor's political-military team" -- which comprises half a dozen serious young staffers, five paid interns, plus another half-dozen active-duty officers detailed to CSIS by the Pentagon for one-year tours. "That team would never leave me unprepared," he says.

What the viewer doesn't learn from the shorthand that television flashes under Taylor's name -- "military analyst" -- is that CSIS is a markedly conservative organization that forms a sort of interlocking directorate with the Washington establishment. That its advisory board includes 22 members of Congress, with former Federal Reserve chief Paul Volcker as chairman and Sam Nunn as co-chairman. That 10 percent of its funding comes from the Pentagon and other federal agencies. That a Saudi prince contributed more than $250,000. That it has received $50,000 to $250,000 from such defense contractors as Boeing, General Dynamics, Rockwell, Honeywell and Westinghouse (not to mention Exxon, Amoco, IBM, Toyota and a slew of foundations). Its annual report boasts: "We network in Washington with the Congress, the executive branch, the scholarly community, the corporate and labor communities, and the media . . . CSIS has broadened its outreach to the Budget, Commerce, Finance and Ways and Means Committees." (Brookings gets almost all its money from corporations, foundations and individuals, with less than 1 percent coming from the government.)

Taylor shows his visitor the map-covered "war room," where, he notes, CSIS has briefed many a member of Congress. He plucks a tape from his video library. After each television appearance Taylor critiques the tape with his wife, Louise. ("His wife is great," says Tammy Haddad. "Having a great wife is important in these things. They know where you are, when you're at a dinner party and can't do the show.")

When Saddam's tanks rolled into Kuwait, Taylor's phone started ringing nonstop. "Today" had him four mornings in a row, "NBC Nightly News" three straight nights. CNN tried to sign Taylor as a fulltime consultant, but he was too busy. He later signed contracts with "Good Morning America" and WRC-TV's "Live at Five."

"A lot of these guys can take five minutes to make a point," says WRC reporter Peter Ford. "Bill had 30 seconds and usually did it in 20. He was very good with the maps. His information was so hard and so good. He was plugged into some serious arteries."

Taylor turns on the VCR, slips in a tape of his appearance on "Today" just after the Iraqi invasion. He stares intently at his televised visage.

"A key question is whether the American people have the stomach to engage in combat to protect vital interests of the United States," Taylor tells Bryant Gumbel. He sounds forceful, authoritative.

Gumbel is skeptical. "How high a price should we be prepared to pay?" he asks. "Are we talking about an extended shooting war?"

"It would probably be a matter of weeks," Taylor says. "There would be large casualties. But we have a vital strategic interest in the Persian Gulf."

Taylor, like most experts, was wrong about the number of American casualties. In September, he predicted the United States could suffer 30,000 casualties in a four- to six-week war. By November he had reduced that estimate to 5,000 or less. He said the ground war would last two to three weeks.

In most respects, however, Taylor's forecasts were on target. He dismissed talk of an amphibious assault on Kuwait and predicted that allied forces would encircle Saddam's army from the west.

Taylor pops in another tape. Charles Gibson is welcoming him on "Good Morning America" the day after the war ended. "I must give you your due," Gibson says. "It {the amphibious landing} turned out to have been a feint all along. You always said the massive movement was going to come from the west. I give you congratulations this morning."

Taylor turns off the tape, puffs on a Salem. He looks satisfied. 'TOO MANY WHITE MALE FAMILIAR FACES'

In the first month of the Persian Gulf crisis last August, nearly half the American guests on "Nightline" and "MacNeil/Lehrer" were current or former government officials such as Taylor. Ninety-eight percent of the "Nightline" guests, and 87 percent of those on "MacNeil/ Lehrer," were white. About nine in 10 guests on both shows were men.

During the first two weeks of the war, 1.5 percent of those interviewed on the networks' nightly newscasts expressed skepticism about U.S. involvement.

These are among the findings of Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, a liberal media watchdog group that argues that television airs too narrow a spectrum of opinion. From January 1985 through April 1988, FAIR found, the most frequent guests on "Nightline" and "MacNeil/Lehrer" were Henry Kissinger, Alexander Haig, Elliott Abrams and Jerry Falwell.

Such guests "are pushing an establishment ideology," says Jeff Cohen, FAIR's executive director. "A more wide-ranging debate would not only be better for democracy, it'd be better television."

Talk-show producers say FAIR has a point. "I can't dispute the notion that we have on too many white male familiar faces," says Richard Harris of "Nightline." "We try as best we can to have more women, more minorities and fresh faces with different ideas. The notion that we have a Rolodex with just Henry Kissinger and Zbigniew Brzezinski is wrong.

"There is a problem," he concedes, "with the media relying too much on the Washington-New York axis. There are plenty of bright people in California and Chicago, but we tend, out of laziness, not to reach beyond the Potomac or the Hudson."

There is another dynamic at work here. Television is drawn to those who either control or once controlled the levers of power, and after 10 years of the Reagan-Bush administrations, those people are mainly conservatives.

"We try to get people who have something to do with policy," says Peggy Robinson of "MacNeil/Lehrer." "Of the 535 members of Congress, how many are black? How many are women? How many in the Cabinet are black or women? Sometimes we're stuck, if we want the administration's viewpoint. There's certainly validity to the criticism that there are too many white middle-aged men on TV. But unfortunately, Washington works that way."

Cohen says corporate sponsors are more comfortable with a lineup that seems to exclude the most extreme critics of U.S. policy. For a 1989 debate on the Valdez oil spill, he notes, "MacNeil/Lehrer" pitted the chairman of Exxon against the governor of Alaska, apparently feeling no need to muddy the waters with an environmental advocate.

The conservative tilt on some shows is so pronounced that flaming moderates are passed off as hard-core liberals. Such commentators as Al Hunt, Mark Shields and Michael Kinsley hardly seem as far to the left as Robert Novak, Pat Buchanan and John McLaughlin are to the right, but their presence provides a superficial sort of "balance."

Peter Dykstra, a spokesman for the environmental group Greenpeace, says he has little success getting his people on talk shows. "TV is biased toward the center," he says. "You will find people on the right who say they feel just as cut out as we do."

He's got a point. Kari Wood of Concerned Women for America, for example, says her conservative group, despite its 700,000 members, gets little television exposure compared with the National Organization for Women. "When media people think of women's organizations, they think of NOW," Wood says. "NOW represents the feminist agenda."

Still, there's one kind of bias that seems to cut across ideological lines. When lobbying to get Greenpeace activists on the tube, Dykstra says, "I've been told by several different bookers, by way of suggesting why the person isn't qualified, that they've never seen them on television before." NO TIME FOR IFS, ANDS OR BUTS

If Eleanor Clift is ever tempted to forget that she is one of the few women pundits to appear regularly on television, all she has to do is check her mail.

"Shut up, you bitch," said one letter-writer. "You should be home barefoot and pregnant," said another. A third accused her of "testosterone envy." Clift has lost count of how many viewers have urged her to find a new hairstyle. And a Texas columnist once ridiculed her for wearing white stockings.

Still, the Newsweek correspondent says, "Most people get a kick out of the fact that a woman can hold her own."

For years, Clift toiled as an anonymous print journalist, flying around the globe with two presidents but little known outside the world of political pros. Television changed all that. Now, at 50, Clift is in constant demand for panel discussions and gives a dozen paid lectures a year.

"I'm very big on the post-menopausal women's circuit," she says. "Most of the time when corporations invite me, it's to speak to the spouses."

She began doing television a decade ago, when "Washington Week in Review" would occasionally invite her to discuss women's issues. It wasn't easy for Clift, who started as a Newsweek secretary and was never comfortable speaking in front of large audiences. And she seemed to attract endless advice -- smile a lot, wear bright colors, wear a choker -- about her physical appearance.

"I found it absolutely terrifying initially," Clift says. "You're looking at someone who took a course in how to face an audience without taking a tranquilizer."

But the reporter conquered her stage fright, and in 1983 she got a call from John McLaughlin, who peppered her with a series of questions. When Clift hesitated, "he sort of barked at me: 'If you want to be on this show, you'd better get some opinions.' "

Now Clift holds what she terms "the woman's chair" on "The McLaughlin Group," sometimes serving as both the token blond and token liberal.

"The old boys' network is still very much alive," she says. "When I first started doing the show, I felt as though I had invaded a male locker room because there was all this towel-snapping going on." She says she didn't feel truly accepted until Robert Novak started attacking "Eleanor Clift and people of her ilk."

Clift still finds herself being tapped to chew over women's subjects, from rape to breast-feeding. As one of few commentators willing to question the war, she has also been the target of virulent media-bashing. "The press is a convenient enemy," she declared on "Crossfire," "because anybody who raises skeptical questions in this mood of intense patriotism is immediately suspect."

Producer Richard Davis loved the show, which pitted Clift against Washington Times editor Arnaud de Borchgrave. "We look for people with passion, and she had passion," he says.

At a recent McLaughlin taping, Clift was denouncing brutality by the Los Angeles police when the moderator interrupted her.

"You don't think courts are to blame?" McLaughlin growled, trying to drown her out.

"What good does it do to fill up courts and fill up jails," Clift answered in her loudest voice, "if they go around the turnstile once and come back out again?"

"You don't think courts coddle criminals?" he bellowed.

"They coddle criminals because we've overloaded them," she shot back.

Clift, who covers Congress for Newsweek, says that what she does on television is something different, not subject to the same rules as her magazine work. "The nature of these shows is you say things more provocative than you would in print," she says. "People know there's an entertainment factor so they don't hold you personally liable for things.

"The danger is it turns us all into stereotypes, because you don't have time to express the ifs, ands or buts. It's like a situation comedy and everyone plays their role. The public likes that. They root for their characters." 'SOME PEOPLE CAN'T KEEP THEIR MOUTH SHUT'

It is time for a belated, if obvious, confession. Print reporters also play the expert game. We too have our favorites who can be counted on to reel off good quotes when a 6 p.m. deadline is approaching. Sure, we have more leeway than our TV brethren -- we can use longer quotes, for one thing, and it's easier to weave nuance and complexity into our stories. Still, we need people who know how to speak in punchy paragraphs on short notice.

Which may be why I keep going back to Steve Hess.

A few days after the Persian Gulf cease-fire, Hess is in demand again. A reporter and cameraman from Tribune Broadcasting are setting up in a sixth-floor conference room at Brookings, down the hall from Hess's cluttered office. The reporter, Marc Mooney, is doing a piece on the prospects for President Bush's domestic agenda, and he is here to interview Hess and another Brookings scholar, Thomas Mann. Mooney calls such people "bitemeisters."

"In my opinion, these guys are almost too available," he says. "But having operated so long within the Beltway, they give you a pretty good spin on the players."

Mann walks in. "You were quoted already this morning in The Post," Mooney says.

"I tell you, some people can't keep their mouth shut," Mann replies.

After Mann finishes, the cameraman moves his equipment across the room so it won't look like both interviews were shot in the same place.

Hess slips into a chair and clips on his microphone with businesslike efficiency. "Okay, what's your angle?" he asks.

As the interview begins, Hess clasps his hands in his lap. His speech is relaxed, conversational. He has mastered the art of smiling every sentence or so, an Andy Rooney-like twinkle in his eye.

Hess is careful to speak in simple declarative sentences, many of which can be spliced off and used by themselves:

"International capital doesn't translate very easily into domestic popularity."

"If we have a short recession, as he promises us, George Bush is going to be in very good shape."

"I think, frankly, in the absence of any money, they're going to have to look for issues that don't cost very much."

"When you go back to business as usual, the picture is still pretty grim."

The discussion wanders onto tangents involving civil rights, crime and competitiveness. Hess starts to ramble a bit, as if he knows this portion will end up on the cutting-room floor.

"That's it, Steve," Mooney says. "I just need a two-shot."

Hess gets more than a thousand media calls a year. On January 10, to pick a random day from his logbook, he spoke with Hearst Television, the Kansas City Star, "Nightline," the Dallas Morning News, the Hartford Courant,

C-SPAN, Britain's Independent Television News and USA Today.

Hess's role as all-purpose wise man is based in part on classic Washington-insider credentials. A former speechwriter for President Eisenhower and urban-affairs aide to President Nixon, he has worked on the Hill, taught at Harvard, written a syndicated column and served as a U.S. representative to the United Nations. He gives about 30 lectures a year, charging trade associations up to $5,000 but mainly speaking to academic groups for a few hundred dollars.

On the tube, Hess's insights are generally boiled down to eight or nine seconds, the briefest dash of spice in the great gelatinous mass of electronic journalism. But over the years, he says, he got fed up with being led through his paces by "23-year-old producers playing the part of reporters." Or taking calls from bookers "who need someone to say 'The sky is blue,' someone else to say 'The sky is green' -- and they're sounding you out to see if you think blue or green."

Finally, he decided to blow the lid off the sound-bite business. In a 1989 piece for The Post's Outlook section, Hess charged that "TV news is increasingly dishonest" because "reporters tend to interview only those who fit a preconceived notion of what the story will be."

The piece caused a faint ripple in television circles, but a few days later the bookers were calling again and Hess was back on the interview circuit. He had publicly denounced the whole business, and no one cared. Television was still willing to use him, and he was still willing to be used.

And so it was that the phone rang in Hess's Cleveland Park home on January 19, 1990. "I'm asleep," Hess recalls. "It's 1:15 in the morning. A reporter is calling to tell me Marion Barry has been arrested at the Vista. My wife heard me say, 'If what you tell me is true, this is a sad day for Marion Barry and the people of the District of Columbia.' The next morning I had no recollection of the phone ringing. I had given a sound bite in my sleep."

Howard Kurtz covers the media for The Washington Post. His last story for the Magazine was a semi-fond farewell to New York City.