The publication last year of Edward Alwood's "Straight News" was a disturbing and embarrassing event for whoever in American journalism may have read it. It demonstrated our ignorance and culpability in helping to sustain for several decades after World War II a homophobic atmosphere in which gay men and women struggled to survive and maintain sanity and self-respect.

The prevailing wisdom among "serious" journalists in that period was exemplified by a 1966 article in Time magazine and a 1967 production of "CBS Reports" narrated by Mike Wallace.

Homosexuality, the Time essayist wrote, is "a pathetic little second-rate substitute for reality, a pitiable flight from life. As such it deserves fairness, compassion, understanding and, when possible, treatment. But it deserves no encouragement, no glamorization, no rationalization, no fake status as minority martyrdom, no sophistry about simple differences in taste -- and, above all, no pretense that it is anything but a pernicious sickness."

Wallace, in one segment of the CBS production on homosexuality, declared: "The average homosexual, if there be such, is promiscuous. He is not interested in nor capable of a lasting relationship like that of a heterosexual marriage. . . . The pickup -- the one-night stand -- these are characteristic of the homosexual relationship."

No "mainstream" medium today would publish or broadcast these diagnoses. But that was a commonplace belief at the time, and survives among millions of Americans today. The sexual practices of homosexuals were criminal acts. Homosexuals were banned from military service and from civilian employment in the federal government by an executive order issued by President Eisenhower in the 1950s. They were generally unwelcome in the private economy also. The psychiatric community declared them to be mentally ill, afflicted with "a curable perversion that {poses} tragic consequences for the nation's impressionable youths."

They were denounced by religious, educational and political leaders, harassed and often beaten by the police and jailed by unsympathetic judges. They lived in constant fear that their secret would out, that their families would disown them and their employers would throw them into the street.

The purpose of Alwood's book was not merely to rehash this forgotten history or to prove that journalists are as capable of bigotry as anyone else. Instead, he aimed to discover how the "conventional wisdom" of the postwar years, came to be so widely accepted by the media.

His first discovery was that homosexuality was not a subject the media dealt with before World War II. Gay people were invisible in society. They hid their sexual identities out of fear of the consequences disclosure would bring. There were no demonstrations against discrimination, no gay newspapers or magazines to plead their case, no lobbies to represent their interests, no forums to debate the issues. Besides, "sex" was not a subject fit for family-oriented newspapers and magazines. So there was no "news" for journalists to report and no opportunities to come into contact with these invisible people.

The war brought unwanted visibility and damaging publicity, centering on efforts by the military to keep homosexuals out of the service and to get rid of them if they were in uniform. These actions were taken on the recommendation of clinical psychiatrists who had come to view homosexuality as a mental illness. That view became the dominant "scientific" judgment, accepted for many years by the public, by government officials and by the mass of American journalists.

In 1968 the American Psychiatric Association (APA) officially reclassified homosexuality as a "non-psychotic" disorder, but also concluded that it was an aberration of the same type as "fetishism, pedophilia, transvestism, exhibitionism, voyeurism, sadism and masochism." Five years later the association announced a reversal of its previous positions. It decided -- in a secret ballot vote by its members -- that homosexuality "by itself . . . does not meet the criteria for being a psychiatric disorder."

The repercussions were widespread. It was a repudiation of the many psychiatric "experts" on homosexuality whose opinions for years had been accepted as gospel. Journalists now had a new "scientific" context for their work and a new perspective on the "invisible" men and women of the gay community. At the same time, the APA action destroyed the "scientific" underpinning of discriminatory laws, social and governmental policies and sanctions.

As a result, homosexuals increasingly came "out of the closet", engaged in public demonstrations and political activities, formed clubs and associations and church congregations and began producting magazines, newspapers, films and television programs throughout the country. As they became visible as people they began to acquire in the press and in the public mind a more positive and sympathetic image.

There are valuable lessons here for contemporary journalism. The first is that uncritical or unqualified reliance on "experts" and "expert opinion" can have disastrous consequences. The "master race" theories that infected Germany and Japan in the 1930s were a product of bigotries based on pseudoscience. Concepts of racial inferiority and a rationale for segregation in the United States were grounded in a vast outpouring of pseudoscientific literature.

The other obvious lesson is that it is dangerous and foolish for journalists to isolate themselves from the subjects of their work. It was easy, as Mike Wallace confessed to Alwood, to believe the worst about homosexuals if you knew none. That applies to race and to class as well. If we have never met or known a black person or a "redneck" or a banker we can put them into any stereotyped pigeonhole we choose, usually the wrong one. This is a pitfall of punditry that allows us to substitute opinion for knowledge. It is only through the hard and tedious work of reporting that we often discover something approximating truth.