Members of the local chapter of the strident AIDS activist group ACT-UP, which recently lambasted the city's gay newspaper as kowtowing to the establishment, have touched off a heated debate on the role of the gay press in Washington.

Members of the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power are renowned for vehement protests of the response of the Bush administration to AIDS research and treatment. Last month, its seven-month-old local chapter was catapulted into the local fray with a campaign against what they say is the editorial bias of The Washington Blade, the city's only gay newspaper.

ACT-UP/D.C. members charged that the Blade, under the guise of objective reporting, is tilting stories to champion federal policies that undermine the rights of people with AIDS and discredit the accomplishment of AIDS activists.

Editors at the 21-year-old Blade argued that their publication is not an advocacy newspaper and refused to be "strong-armed" into "echoing ACT-UP's point of view."

The debate underscores new questions being raised across the country about whether gay publications should be advocates or journalistically independent.

The Blade is one of the few gay newspapers in the country to stay in business for more than two decades, according to American University journalism professor Rodger Streitmatter, who spent three months this year studying the nation's burgeoning gay newspaper industry.

It has managed to do this without ever publishing an editorial page, said Publisher Don Michaels.

Starting out as a newsletter in 1969 with two employees, The Blade now boasts 16 full-time staff members and a computerized newsroom.

The District has "close to 300 agencies serving the needs of the gay community," Michaels said. "What people are hungry for is substantial information so they can make up their own minds."

Blade senior editor Lisa Keen said an objective approach is the best way to serve its readers who already have a wealth of news outlets to choose from. "The community is very news-savvy," Keen said. "They don't need to be spoon-fed opinions to adopt."

ACT-UP/D.C. began targeting the Blade after the newspaper ran a front-page story on ACT-UP's disruption of Health and Human Services Secretary Louis Sullivan's speech at the Sixth International Conference on AIDS in San Francisco in June without explaining the reason for the protest. Keen, who wrote the story, later acknowledged that she should have indicated that U.S. immigration policy toward people with HIV infection precipitated the action.

The ire of the activists was also raised because the Blade had not taken a stand on ACT-UP's boycott of Miller beer because its parent company, Philip Morris Cos. Inc., is contributing to the reelection bid of Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.).

ACT-UP members said Washington needs a more strident gay newspaper because the city's proximity to the federal government makes its gay and lesbian community more complacent.

"This town is totally asleep. We live in the belly of the beast," said ACT-UP/D.C. member Linda Meredith, who moved here from Atlanta to organize the chapter.

"The gay community has taken on the Washington persona of the suits, the lobbying and the backroom deals."

Some gay leaders agree. Mauro Montoya, president of the Gertrude Stein Democratic Club, said he feels the Blade has in some sense lost touch with the community.

"I think the Blade needs a little shaking up," he said.

The paper makes little effort to cover some segments of the homosexual community, particularly the region's blacks, he said.

Bob Roehr, president of the Gay and Lesbian Community Center, said he is uncomfortable with ACT-UPs tactics. But he is also critical of the newspaper.

"The Blade is aiming to be the national gay newspaper of record on politics," he said. The Blade also ignores the suburban gay and lesbian populations, he added.

"It's {aimed at} an older white male audience that lives in the Dupont Circle area," Roehr said. "You go beyond the Beltway and you can't pick up a copy."

Publisher Michaels disputes this, saying they get "a highly favorable response" from an annual demographic survey of their readers. He said The Blade publishes letters, which serves as a forum for readers.

In last week's issue, the Blade also published a report on ACT-UP's activities written by member Emmett Underwood.

American University's Streitmatter said his study of gay newspapers showed the Blade to have an unusually "balanced approach to news."

"They don't want a screaming press," he said. "In that way The Blade fits very well with Washington -- it's a little more staid."

But Streitmatter also argues that an editorial page would be a way to deflect the current criticism.

"Washington's gay community feels the government is out to destroy gays and lesbians," he said. "The problem is that gay people don't have outlets for their opinions. They know they are not going to get it from the mainstream papers."

But Roehr, who has lived in the District since the Blade began publishing, said he has given up trying to change The Blade. "It is not a regulated public utility. They can publish what they want."