Nick Thimmesch, resident journalist at the American Enterprise Institute, was identified incorrectly yesterday as a former newspaper columnist. Thimmesch continues to write a column for the Los Angeles Times Syndicate.

While virtually everyone in America now learns how to read, the country faces a serious problem with the large numbers of people who choose not to read or only read simple "dumbed down" material, a panel of experts and publishers said yesterday.

Most pointed with concern to the stagnant circulation of daily newspapers and flat sales of books. They blamed the problem on the allure of television and the failure of schools to set high standards. Some suggested it may be a consequence of mass literacy itself.

Regardless of the cause, they said America's "a-literates" -- people who can read but don't -- enfeeble the country's technological economy. These new nonreaders also create a danger for democratic government, they said, by opening themselves to political manipulation.

"The problem lies in the gap between our expectations for universal intellectual equality and the colder reality," said Townsend Hoopes, president of the Association of American Publishers. "Obviously, in a world of increasing social, economic, and technical complexity, the power will gravitate to those with the greatest knowledge. And if the gap between the educated minority and uneducated mass is too great, the opportunities for political manipulation will grow."

But another panelist, Kent Rhodes, president of the Magazine Publishers Association, noted that magazine sales have risen rapidly. "There is evidence that people are reading more even if they aren't reading things that intellectuals think they should be reading," Rhodes said.

"I'm not so worried about simplification of text," he added, referring to complaints that many articles and ooks have been "dumbed down" for people who can't or won't read anything complex. "There is a great art to doing that well."

The exchange took place at a conference on "a-literates" sponsored by the American Enterprise Institute, a center for public policy research, at its office in downtown Washington.

"Television news admits it is essentially a headline service, richly complemented with vivid visuals," said Nick Thimmesch, a former newspaper columnist now a resident journalist at AEI. "It is not difficult to conjure up an Orwellian world where lower income and minority people become television's biggest audience, and people who do a lot of reading become the decision makers, even the elitist class."

According to the most recent Census Bureau figures, only 1/2 of 1 percent of Americans over age 14 were illiterate in 1979. The proportion of young adults graduating high school has climbed to 85 percent.

Even so, said Robert M. Wilson, a reading expert at the University of Maryland, there has been a drastic decline in newspaper readership among people aged 18 to 35. He added that many of those who are literate based on the Census Bureau definition "can't function very well in our society."

"It used to be that we were so interested in getting people to read that we weren't concerned with whether they were reading," Wilson said. "That's the problem we have to pay attention to now."

"We have to emphasize reading to learn, now that children have learned how to read," said John Campbell, a professor of reading at Howard University. "We must develop the interest and habits for reading. That's something you cannot mandate."