IF I THOUGHT America was getting its information exclusively from 'The McLaughlin Group,' " says Morton Kondracke, a regular on the syndicated weekly discussion show, "I'd be worried." Indeed, many participants on television's political roundtable programs, especially "The McLaughlin Group," have no illusions that their weekly spats on the air contribute significantly to the public debate. Fred Barnes says, "You don't go to 'McLaughlin' for the great philosophical insight or a better understanding of political ideology. You go for the catfight." Jack Germond readily concedes that "The McLaughlin Group" does not offer serious, in-depth discussion, and Eleanor Clift has called "McLaughlin" "the Super Bowl of {baloney}."

Why do these serious professionals take part in pointless TV catfights? The basic defense is that it's harmless fun. Germond says, "It's just a television show." Kondracke concurs: "It is a successful piece of show business and most of the people who watch it understand it as such."

Do they? Such shows as "McLaughlin," "Crossfire" and "Capital Gang" do not have a typical audience. "They may not reach huge, prime-time audiences," The New York Times wrote of such programs, "but they reach many of the people who run the country."

Charlie Peters, editor of The Washington Monthly, vehemently disputes the contention that no one takes these programs seriously: "At various times these shows have had an enormous effect. There was a time when 'Agronsky and Company' actually determined what would be the consensus {on which issues are important} in the press room the following week."

The influence of these shows transcends their agenda-setting function. Marty Schram, a frequent participant on "Capital Gang," says, "The talk shows are very influential . . . . The politicians either watch them or have their aides watch them. They want to find out what the public's being told." Schram is not guessing; he, like the other participants, is often approached by politicians and their aides expressing pleasure or displeasure with a discussion they heard on a recent show. Indeed, the White House staff prepares a weekly summary of TV news coverage, including summaries of the roundtables. The Reagan administration regularly fed its loyalists tidbits to use on the shows.

If presidents and congressmen worry about what the participants on the roundtables say, they evidently believe that their constituents around the country take them seriously. "Serious is in the eye of the beholder," says Hodding Carter of "McLaughlin" 's following, "and a lot of people take {McLaughlin} seriously." If many people take even that show seriously, undoubtedly greater numbers take seriously the other more subdued programs that share "The McLaughlin Group" 's basic flaws. For people around the country, the political roundtables serve as a window into public issues and current events. Americans need a better window.

Roundtable political programs seem like a perfect way for television to serve democracy -- exposing Americans to top analysts wrestling with major issues. As William F. Buckley Jr., host of "Firing Line," aptly observes, "Interesting journalists are always . . . worth listening to. They combine the passions of late-night sessions at college with experience gained as professional observers of the political scene."

Thus, TV opinion journalism was a commendable development. But somewhere it went wrong.

One major problem of roundtables is their format. Under the best of circumstances, 30 minutes is not much time to explore even a single subject in great depth. Most of the roundtable shows compound the problem by having several subjects digested -- or at least swallowed -- in the short time available. The problem is exacerbated by the expectation that all of the commentators be heard from on virtually every issue. "The McLaughlin Group," further compounds the matter by a self-parodic pace. The exchanges whiz by with such speed that even when a participant manages to offer a genuine insight in his compressed remarks, it is likely to be lost on much of the bedazzled audience.

The lack of time for serious discussions contributes to a second unfortunate aspect of the political roundtables: their locker room machismo. One needn't be a feminist to agree with political activist Ann Lewis that "when political talk shows, like 1950s sitcoms, depict a world of white male authority figures, they reinforce stereotyped attitudes about whose opinions really count."

Women who do participate in the aggressive banter of these shows risk being stigmatized as "screechy" and "strident." As Cokie Roberts says, "People are not offended by a man jumping in and interrupting another man and making his voice louder and more strident than everybody else's. People are offended at the mere notion of a woman doing that."

It is no coincidence that the more sedate shows like "Inside Washington" and "This Week With David Brinkley" more regularly accommodate women. Mary McGrory, Eleanor Randolph and Cokie Roberts have all turned down invitations to appear on "The McLaughlin Group." Randolph explained to McLaughlin that "I was brought up not to break into people's conversations. I don't have the personality that's necessary for the show."

The three most boisterous programs -- "Crossfire," "Capital Gang" and "The McLaughlin Group" -- have a total of 11 regulars, all male. "The McLaughlin Group" does bring in Eleanor Clift as a frequent substitute participant. Clift invariably smiles during the raucousness, feeling compelled to assure the audience -- especially the female audience -- that she knows the journalistic circus is a male joke. "I always have it in mind that I don't want to become one of them," she acknowledges. Of course, the complaint that the format and macho tone of these shows are not conducive to serious discussion presupposes that they aim for serious discussion. This is not always the case. On some of these shows political discourse is so subservient to entertainment that the adjective "fake" may fairly be applied.

Like professional wrestling, most of the political talk shows involve some rigged aggression. Such journalistic show business goes back at least to the 1960s, when Buckley, who enjoys warm friendships with many liberals, came across as a throat-slasher who would run over his grandmother to advance the conservative cause. In the 1970s, James Kilpatrick and Shana Alexander, who actually like each other, displayed what seemed like true mutual contempt on their "60 Minutes" appearances. This tradition of contrived nastiness is now being carried on by Robert Novak.

Viewers of "The McLaughlin Group" were led to believe that there was genuine animosity between Novak and both Jack Germond and Morton Kondracke. In fact, Novak is friends with his TV adversaries, indeed an old, close friend of Germond's. Novak simply played the role of designated bad guy.

As with the villains on professional wrestling, Novak's punches don't really land. The few exceptions prove the rule. Once on "The McLaughlin Group" he accused Kondracke of putting loyalty to Israel ahead of loyalty to the United States, and Kondracke was genuinely furious. Upon learning Kondracke's reaction after the show, Novak replied: "Mort was really angry? I had no idea." When Kondracke later told Michael Kinsley that he intended to even the score with Novak, Kinsley warned him not to tamper with the show's scipt.

"It's 'I Love Lucy,' " says Kinsley. "People watch the show because every week they see these familiar characters get into funny situations and act out their foibles. The audience doesn't want to see Lucy acting brilliantly all of a sudden. And nobody wants to see Mort beat up Bob."

Actually, Kinsley was only half right: Lots of people would love to have seen Kondracke beat up Novak. But Kinsley's essential point is correct: "The McLaughlin Group" is theater and Kondracke, stung by Novak's excess, was taking matters seriously as if the burlesque were real.

On "Crossfire," the anger expressed by the hosts is not always spontaneous. Before Kinsley became a regular, he told a revealing story about his experience as a substitute host: "My first show, while I was desperately trying to remember the name of the congressman I was supposed to be harassing, my head suddenly exploded with the voice of the producer, coming through the little thing they put in your ear, shrieking, 'Get mad! GET MAD!!'"

Although Kinsley is now a regular host on "Crossfire," the producers still find it necessary to keep his ire up. "They try to goad you like a bull in the bullring," Kinsley says. "They'll say, 'Are you going to let him get away with that?'"

The aura of contrivance affects guests too. "Crossfire" 's forced theatrics were most evident during a program with a Ku Klux Klan member as a guest. When Tom Braden and Pat Buchanan arrived at the studio, they found the Grand Dragon of the Klan seated, decked out in the full Klan regalia. After Buchanan's introduction, Braden upbraided the guest, angrily asking, "How dare you come in here with that silly costume? Why are you wearing that?" The Klansman replied, "Because your producer told me to wear it."

A rare exception among such shows is "Firing Line," where Buckley and his guests are likely to make genuine concessions to each other in the course of their discussions. Asked whether any guests actually changed his thinking about a position, Buckley replied that almost all of his guests at least shade his thinking. The difference is only partly format; it is also one of expectation. Novak and friends enter the TV studios not to learn or explore but to shout, insult, proselytize and, above all, to entertain.

The tendency toward closed-mindedness is reinforced by the fact that the roundtable shows are not spontaneous, although they like to suggest otherwise. The topics are known in advance on many shows. On most of them they are known at least the day before, and on "Brinkley" they are reviewed in a conference an hour before the show.

On its face, this preparation might seem harmless or even positive, but in combination with the machine-gun pacing, combative format and lack of time, it deprives the shows of spontaneity and increases the bullheadedness of the participants. Knowing the topics in advance, the participants are never caught off guard and forced to think out loud. If they were, they might show some flexibility and vitiate the clashes that are so central to the shows.

Finally, the shows' structural problems are exacerbated by their success: The regular participants on these shows become TV stars -- recognized in public and highly sought after on the lecture circuit. Their own stardom, coupled with the dynamic of the shows, creates a pressure to "perform." Genuine reflection, uncertainty, and confessions of a change of heart may go over well in a university classroom, but they don't make for exciting television. Sam Donaldson, a "Brinkley" regular, acknowleges, "We're all a little afraid that if we become namby-pamby in our views, people will say 'Why do I want to listen to him?'" The greatest harm from these shows is their role in corrupting the way we approach public life. They offer what one commentator calls "the politics of kicks . . . the phenomenon of political discourse drained of content," as substance takes a backseat to style. The politics of kicks can produce concrete damage, which critic Joseph Epstein believes happened in the 1960s.

"Political and intellectual life took on the quality of a boutique," Epstein has observed, "whose main design was the avoidance of boredom . . . . William F. Buckley Jr., Abbie Hoffman, and Eldridge Cleaver, all of whom rose to fame during this period, shared one quality: For a time at least, none of them was boring. Somewhere along the line, the American train jumped the main rail, and across its engine was emblazoned the word 'STYLE.' "

Epstein is correct that overemphasis on style and excitement affects the country's substantive priorities. In that regard, the talk shows have a palpable negative influence. The shows love an issue like flag-burning -- juicy, partisan, and emotional even if ephemeral and relatively unimportant -- and have far less use for an infinitely more important matter such as the problems of the underclass. The latter lends itself less to frivolous and titillating attitudinizing.

There are, of course, counterexamples to the boisterous superficiality that dominates political commentary on television today. "Nightline" and "The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour" both demonstrate that the level of political discourse can rise reasonably high and retain an audience. Though these programs are closer to news than opinion commentary, "Nightline" and "MacNeil/Lehrer," their own drawbacks notwithstanding, offer competing points of view and thus demonstrate how political debate can achieve respectable ratings without resorting to silliness or one-upsmanship.

But McLaughlin and company crowd such programs off the air. They satisfy TV's informal quota of public service shows, but perhaps more importantly, shows like "The McLaughlin Group" make more serious programs less attractive. These shows titillate us and condition us to expect titillation from political discourse. Watching "Crossfire" and "The McLaughlin Group" makes viewers impatient with slower paced, more serious discussions, a trend reflected in the reduction of "Firing Line" to 30 minutes.

When "The McLaughlin Group" first appeared in 1982, stations received many calls complaining about those people who were so rude and kept shouting at each other. At the time, it was a shock to viewers to see people behaving in such a manner on television. Less than a decade later, it is leisurely and serious discussion of a single subject that disconcerts viewers.

It may not be empty boasting when John McLaughlin predicts that his "spin of the week" approach to political discourse is the wave of the future. But one needn't speculate about the future to recognize "The McLaughlin Group" 's influence. Michael Kinsley, for one, maintains that McLaughlin "has had more impact on journalism than all but a very few people."

A cyclical effect is at work here. Television generally has helped make us a less reflective people with a shorter attention span, creating an environment in which "The McLaughlin Group" can flourish and an hour-long "Firing Line" cannot. Shows like "The McLaughlin Group" then reinforce and worsen the condition that originally gave rise to them. Washington Monthly editor Charlie Peters sees our current political talk shows as "adding to and encouraging the cliche-thinking in the country. All of America is beginning to think that way. We're all ready to give that short, pithy answer."

Alan Hirsch is a Washington area lawyer. This article is adapted from his book, "Talking Heads," to be published next month by St. Martin's Press.