Let's get one thing straight: journalists don't shout on "Washington Week in Review," nor do they grill newsmakers.

No, this one is a group of four rather mild-mannered newspaper reporters or columnists who gather with host Paul Duke on Friday evenings to shed some light on what occurred during the week.

The show airs 52 weeks a year, usually live, and features people who cover Congress and the White House or who write about defense, foreign policy and social issues. Except for Duke's introduction, which he writes earlier in the day, the program is unscripted, leaving the panelists to their own observations of the week's events. Sometimes they disagree with one another, but never waste time quarreling.

Marking its 24th year, "Washington Week" was the original news-discussion program featuring journalists. Now, as Duke notes, "they're all over the lot."

Over the years, Duke, 63, believes "Washington Week" has become "more informal, relaxed, looser. We take on a few more offbeat topics. But fundamentally it remains the same information-providing program: We try to help people understand what's going on."

Among his viewers are plenty who do understand what's going on, members of what Duke calls "the news fraternity in Washington. I think they respect us as being journalists who are interested in primarily being good reporters more than anything else, in conveying as much truth as we possibly can.

"And in an age in which certain show-business qualities have intruded into television news, in certain programs, I think they respect us for adhering to the standards we've always tried to adhere to. We just basically try to call things as we see them. We have no ideological ax to grind, we're not trying to promote a certain viewpoint, we're not into editorial gamesmanship."

Since 1967, WETA has been telecasting "Washington Week" and since January 1969, offering it to the then-new Public Broadcasting Service. The program was soon picked up by stations in Boston, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and other eastern seaboard cities. It is now PBS's longest-running program, watched by millions via nearly all -- 94 percent -- of the nation's 325 PBS stations.

And in many ways, it has defied the soothsayers of modern television.

"By all conventional standards of television success, 'Washington Week' should have long ago passed in video oblivion," said Duke in an introduction to a 1986 collection of essays and discussions by the panelists of that year.

"It is an old-fashioned talking-heads program of the kind supposedly passe. It relies on reporters who actually cover the news rather than on more publicized columnist-commentator types. It has spurned the trendy tendency toward electronic razzle-dazzle and gimmickry in news programming. And it has retained the same essential format, emphasizing factual reporting and informed analysis rather than confrontational journalism."

He thinks viewers like the show because of its "chummy camaraderie, relaxed civility, intimate glimpses of capital life, the feeling that outsiders are tuning in to what the insiders knew."

He also believes that viewers like the show because of its "credibility. The panelists are the people who have been in the trenches all week covering the news, not commentators who sit high above it all in their ivory towers. The result is a program that many feel gets to the bottom of things and in its own small way counters Mark Twain's claim that it is hard for ordinary mortals to understand what's going on in Washington."

But back in 1974, when Duke left NBC News to join the National Public Affairs Center for Television (NPACT) -- a job that included becoming the fifth host of "Washington Week" -- he too thought the show's title seemed "clumsy and unwieldy" and viewed the panelists as "unfancy" newspaper and magazine reporters.

What he discovered was that the show had intensely devoted viewers. "To a graduate of a powerful commercial network, the devotion of 'Washington Week's' fans was little short of phenomenal," he said. "Nothing at NBC had equaled it."

Duke said he has heard of groups who gather regularly on Friday evenings to watch. Other followers send letters inquiring as to the participants' health, new eyeglasses or new marriages. Though the panelists are print journalists, viewers take them to task for mispronunciations, inept television makeup or annoying mannerisms. And at times, they demonstrate substantial loyalty.

In the early '70s, when the Chicago Daily News' outspoken reporter Peter Lisagor drew complaints from Richard Nixon's aides that his remarks were too liberal, Duke said, "The White House, launching a campaign of intimidation, took to calling public broadcasting officials, demanding that they 'get that guy Lisagor off the air.' Failing in that, the Nixon staffers began maneuvering to cut off federal funding for 'Washington Week' and almost all other {PBS} national news and public affairs programming."

Producer Lincoln Furber told viewers that the program's days might be numbered, and the "public response was overwhelming -- -- 15,000 letters of protest, many enclosing donations in the hope that disaster could be staved off. The White House got the message. Before long ... . Nixon staffers backed off from their attack on public broadcasting, and 'Washington Week' was saved."

The rumpled, down-to-earth Lisagor, an original panelist when the show premiered in February 1967, died of lung cancer in December 1976, prompting a letter from a woman who wrote that she'd wept at the deaths of only two public figures, John F. Kennedy and Lisagor.

Now, the most frequent panelists are Charles Corddry of the Baltimore Sun, Haynes Johnson of The Washington Post, Jack Nelson of the Los Angeles Times, free-lancer Hedrick Smith, formerly of the New York Times, and folksy Charles McDowell of the Richmond Times-Dispatch, a favorite of viewers.

Others include Georgie Anne Geyer of Universal Press Syndicate, the New York Times' Thomas Friedman, Steven V. Roberts and Gloria Borger of U.S. News & World Report, Newsweek's Howard Fineman, Michel McQueen of The Wall Street Journal and occasionally The Post's Juan Williams, David Broder and Hobart Rowan, The Journal's Alan Murray and Time's Julie Johnson.

Years ago, the reporters were almost always men. But Duke found himself one recent week with a panel of women, all of whom had been assigned by their papers to cover the very stories that "Washington Week" had chosen to discuss.

"We have more women on because there are more women reporters in Washington now than there used to be," said Duke. "When I first took over 'Washington Week,' the number of women who were available was quite limited. There were not very many women on the Hill or in the State Department or in the White House. Now women are all over the place. As they should be."

Duke is the fifth host, behind Robert MacNeil, who went on to "The MacNeil/Lehrer Newshour"; former CBS newscaster Lincoln Furber; Max M. Kampelman, who became chief arms control negotiator under President Reagan, and WETA public affairs director John Davenport, the first moderator.

Two years after he took the helm, Duke was elected president of the Radio-Television Correspondents' Association, made up of reporters who cover Congress and administer the House and Senate radio-TV galleries. In June 1987, he was one of four journalists named to the Hall of Fame of the Washington chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, Sigma Delta Chi.

During that time, Duke has interviewed almost all American presidents and national leaders, lectured extensively, written widely for major magazines and won several awards for his reporting and writing, including three honorary university degrees and an American Bar Association citation for outstanding coverage of Watergate. "Washington Week in Review" has won both an Emmy and the prestigious Alfred I. DuPont-Columbia University Award for outstanding journalistic achievement.

Paul Duke grew up a ninth generation Duke, the son of two Virginians, Francis (Frank) Washington Duke and his childhood sweetheart, Flossie Christmas Mills. One branch of the family settled in North Carolina, said Duke, made a fortune in tobacco and gave that state Duke University. The other branch, which settled in Virginia, was his.

Frank Duke worked first in Baltimore as a streetcar motorman and then took his wife and two sons, Granville and Paul, to Bethlehem, Pa., before moving back to little Dumbarton, near Richmond.

Life was hard during the Depression, recalled Duke. "My folks put their money in the one bank in Richmond that went broke and they lost everything. In the 1930s, you saw how families had been devastated, how people had it tough."

Duke smiles over what he calls "my Abraham Lincoln boyhood": The family home had no electricity until Paul was about 12 years old and even when he was 16, still had no telephone. But he remembers a town where families never locked their doors and people sat out on porches on summer nights with iced tea or lemonade. His father sold eggs, his mother made and sold buttermilk, the boys picked and sold blackberries. Young Paul made a dollar a week selling Liberty magazine for a nickel a copy; later, a newspaper route brought him $6 a week. Flossie Duke would share the family's breakfast with Depression-era hobos who came to the door after riding the rails.

But when Paul was 9, his father suffered a stroke and lost his ability to speak. Today, Duke recalls playing with his dad the evening before the stroke and noticing his father's slurred speech. After 10 years as an invalid, Frank Duke died.

Meanwhile, during the summer before his senior year in high school, Paul Duke, 16, decided to apply for a job in radio. He auditioned at three Richmond stations. Two turned him down, but WMBG, the NBC affiliate, gave him a job on the condition that he would work 50 hours a week during school. The job meant taking a 45-minute bus ride to the station after school was out at 2:10 and working until 11:30 p.m., then hitchhiking home. He earned $33 a week ("I don't think my father in his whole life ever earned $33 a week") doing newscasts, commercials and station breaks, and playing records. The rest of the time he studied.

Duke kept the job while he attended the University of Richmond. The instructor of the school's only course in journalism, a former newspaperman, encouraged him to try for a job with the local Associated Press bureau. A month later he was hired as an AP reporter. That same year, WMBG -- the station he left -- branched out to start the South's first television station, WTVR-TV.

Reporter Duke began covering routine events across the state and once got his own picture in many newspapers when he interviewed a talking horse owned by a woman who was a psychic. He also wrote a widely-published account of his own near-drowning off Virginia Beach and his search to find the man who saved him.

Today, with 27 years of television behind him, Duke believes "everybody should be in the trenches for a while. I hate to see young people attracted by the glamour {of television}. To me, fundamentally, you should be a reporter. I advise students to go to work for a newspaper for five years. There's no substitute for experience. What makes a good newsperson is a fund of knowledge. So many television people are so vapid; they have no fund of knowledge at all."

As his career at AP continued, Duke began specializing in coverage of state politics and was there when the Supreme Court declared on May 17, 1954, that segregated public schools were unconstitutional. In a show of massive resistance, the white, male state legislators flew the flag of rebellion once more and refused to integrate Virginia schools. The struggle was long and bitter.

In his introduction to a recent biography of Virginia Gov. L. Douglas Wilder, he looked back at those days:

"Blacks were our cooks, janitors and gardeners. They cleaned our homes and were the day-care custodians of our children. But they always came in the back door and never ate at our tables. At lunchtime, I could walk a block from my Richmond office to Murphy's downtown five-and-dime store and order a hot dog, but no black could do so. In nine years of covering Virginia affairs, I never once encountered a black reporter or had any significant relationship with blacks. The news business was as segregated as any other business.

"Looking back today, it is hard to believe that the world of the 1950s ever existed -- that so many otherwise intelligent people were so willing to embrace the old suppressions," he wrote.

In 1957, Duke left Richmond for the AP's Washington bureau to cover national politics. Two years later he moved to the Washington bureau of the Wall Street Journal to cover the '60 presidential campaign of John F. Kennedy and to report on Congress and national politics. (His son, Paul Duke Jr., 27, is a reporter covering banking for the same bureau.)

In 1963, just before President Kennedy's assassination, he joined NBC News as a congressional correspondent and covered many of the major stories of the '60s and '70s including civil rights, the Vietnam debates and Watergate. But in 1974, tired of his daily appearances on NBC's "Today" during Watergate and frustrated with what he considered shallow reporting, he became the third NBC correspondent to join PBS, after Sandor Vanocur and Robert MacNeil.

He took over "Washington Week" and appeared on "Washington Straight Talk" (interviewing, among others, California Gov. Ronald Reagan). His various specials included "Conversation With the President," in which he and Martin Agronsky questioned President Ford on his first year in the White House, and an interview with CIA Director William Colby, angry at a Granada Television special called "The Rise and Fall of the CIA," which had aired on WETA.

In 1980, Duke began "The Lawmakers," a series he still regards fondly. After Duke hosted the series' summer run, Linda Wertheimer and Cokie Roberts joined him for its run until 1984, when funds ran out.

"Television overcovers the White House and undercovers Capitol Hill," said Duke. "Congress is the greatest show on earth and there are so many facets to it. We tried to show its lobbying and in-fighting, and I think the program was building a following. I still feel sad that that program went off the air."

Duke also anchored a two-part history and profile of "This Honorable Court" in 1988, which airs as a 35-minute condensed version for visitors to the Supreme Court, and "The Great Upset of '48," a PBS special about Harry S Truman's victory over Thomas E. Dewey.

"One of the things I really like about public broadcasting is that a lot of the things you do have a life everlasting," said Duke. "They can be shown in schools and colleges, seminars and law schools."

During the past year, he also has presided over "Headline Editions," including one that aired the night of the Supreme Court's long-awaited abortion decision, an Election Day special that looked at key off-year races, and specials devoted to the Bush-Gorbachev superpower summit and to Nelson Mandela's visit to the United States.

"I still think of myself fundamentally as a reporter," said Duke. "I started out as a reporter, grew up reporting, came to Washington as a reporter and I still think in terms of reporting. To me, in the journalistic field there is no finer job than being a reporter, than being in the midst of it, and trying to gather all the information and to provide context and focus for a story that will help people to understand what is going on. That's what our business is all about, I think."