From the outside, the image of the "media" is not as pretty and benign as we often presume. We see ourselves as Galahads, protecting the lame and the halt. But in the minds of many we are arrogant bullies who have constructed defensive bulwarks far more effective than the Star Wars architects imagined.

In all disputes, we have the last word or, if need be, the only word. We recognize no "right" of reply, whether asserted by presidents, legislators, corporate princes or dukes, entertainers or $5 million linebackers. There are no automatic remedies for our criticisms, insults, misrepresentations or slanders.

You are not "entitled" to a letter to the editor, to an op-ed piece or even to a paid advertisement; if we don't like it we don't print it. To ask for "equal time" on the evening news or in the morning newspaper is, very often, to bay at the moon. You have no "right" to fair treatment, no "right" to be quoted accurately or in context or even quoted at all in news reports, broadcasts or commentaries. If you are aggrieved by a Herblock cartoon, your remedy may lie with the United Nations but not here. If your reputation is soiled in a front-page story under a four-column headline, it is most unlikely to be cleansed in the same spot (if it is cleansed at all). The First Amendment to the Constitution, as The Post's executive editor once put it with accuracy and candor, protects our irresponsibilities as it protects innocuous speech.

We recognize, in the case of "public figures" (a category now embracing much of humankind), no "right" of privacy. We will disclose your adulteries and sexual style, your consumption of substances of every description, your financial affairs and manipulations, your physical and mental disabilities and those of your friends and relatives as we choose. If your son -- or mine -- is shot down on the street corner and kicked into the gutter, we will take his photograph and print it on the front page or flash it on screens in a million homes whether you like it or not. It is "news." If a camera catches you clutching a dead child in your arms or grieving at a casket or a grave, we will print it. It's "news."

I do not recite these common journalistic practices in a spirit of criticism or mock surprise but to speak plainly about some of the commercial and professional realities of the news business, a line of work we tend to romanticize through our control of the "media." The subject is appropriate as the great locker room controversy unfolds. We have presented it as a simple "equal rights" issue involving access by both male and female journalists to gladiators who are in the process of disrobing or robing, as the case may be.

The women and their male colleagues reject the idea that interviews be conducted elsewhere than the locker room. The trade magazine Editor & Publisher quotes Tracy Dodd, "one of the first women sportswriters who fought for equal access." Her position, she said, is that "we're not talking about modesty and rights to privacy here, we're talking about territorial rights." She is mistaken. We are talking about a commercial arrangement between the big business of college and professional sport and the big business of news. One party gets access, the other gets publicity beyond price.

From the standpoint of the press there is a bit more to it than that. We have a specific commercial interest in "exclusives" and what is known in the trade as the "ambush interview." Diane Bruno of the New York Daily News explains: "{Outside the locker room} everyone would get the same quotes; there would be no diversity. After these guys have a half-hour or so to calm down, you don't get their gut reaction, you get rationale." Another of the E&P subjects, Paola Bovian of the Los Angeles Daily News, elaborates: "The trend in sportswriting today is toward much more colorful emotional writing. ... When you read a sports piece you're looking for quotes more than anything and getting into the emotions of the team."

One might think that after "a half-hour or so to calm down" comments from a 19- or 20-year-old college halfback who is physically and mentally spent might make more sense than a "gut reaction." But I agree with Ms. Bovian that thoughtful quotes do less for "colorful emotional writing."

I suspect that is why Sam Donaldson was always yelling over the noise of the White House helicopter a version of the ancient inquiry: "Have you stopped beating your wife yet?"