A front-page story last Sunday allowed that this administration just might be better at "presidential newsmaking" than its predecessors. (As if to make the case, Post editors ran below it a report of Mr. Reagan's weekly radio message.)

Knowing something about how combat ribbons in news management used to be earned, I was impressed how White House officials described their reconnoitering to position the president, as reporter Juan Williams wrote, as "a master of foreign policy."

All right. Except that the headquarters staff missed by a mile with what should have been done publicly on behalf of the president's "public diplomacy," an intricate and bold program which really deserves a better designation. It's the realization of his pledge before the British Parliament last June to "foster the infrastructure of democracy" and to engage vigorously in peaceful "competition of ideas and values" with the Soviet Union.

It wasn't until mid-January that the program took shape with the presidential signature of National Security Decision Document 77, creating a Cabinet-level committee to include the secretaries of state and defense, the directors of the U.S. International Communications Agency and the Agency for International Development, plus the assistant to the president for communications. It is chaired by the president's national security adviser.

Apparently deeming it not fit to brief the press on the functions of the committee and its subordinate groups (on international politics, information, broadcasting and public affairs), the story began to leak. The day before NSDD 77 was signed, New Republic editor Morton Kondracke wrote in an op-ed piece in The Wall Street Journal that $65 million would be sought to advance "democracy" abroad.

A week later, with still nothing on the record from the administration, The Post and others learned of the temporary reassignment of Peter Dailey, ambassador to Ireland and Mr. Reagan's campaign advertising manager, for a discreet project to drum up European support for the U.S. medium-range-missile policy. Newsweek concluded that Mr. Dailey's effort and $65 million were one and the same. An unsigned similar story ran in The Post on Jan. 20, while The New York Times the same day said the Cabinet-level committee's responsibilities would include reacting to the nuclear freeze movement in the United States. Times columnist William Safire reported the $65 million as distinct from Mr. Dailey's project.

Only in response to inquiries that day did the State Department address the story. Spokesmen put out a fact sheet saying that "because we have given to little attention to the political, intellectual and social infrastructure... necessary to strengthen bilateral ties," the money would be used exclusively in that pursuit.

Still, White House correspondent Lou Cannon reported the next day that only some of the $65 million would be used to finance "scholarships and institutions for democracy... trade unionists and young people." Then, in his weekly column Feb. 7, he quoted ICA Director Charles Z. Wick saying the money would be used entirely for "democracy initiatives." Meanwhile, on Feb. 3, the story was further complicated when The Times reported that, as an earlier option, a role for the CIA had been suggested.

Finally, the State Department called a special briefing Feb. 7 in which it released a declassified version of NSDD 77. Undersecretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger convincingly denied any CIA involvement or special funding for Mr. Dailey's work, stressing that the $65 million would go only, as The Post subsequently reported, to "advocates of democracy in countries where it is a shaky or iffy proposition."

Congress will be asked next week to authorize the $65 million. This is no excuse for misleading news reporting; but the administration will have to articulate its objectives more fully than it has to date with the press. Otherwise, it will create its own shaky and iffy situation.