THE THING ABOUT a book that makes it an awkward surveyor of important news is that it is born only once, after a gestation period that may drag on for months. This, in turn, calls for draconian security measures if the news content of the book is to be successfully suppressed right up to the publication date. And the thing about a daily newspaper that makes it extremely handy for reporting the news, of course, is that it does come out every day; this creates a certain creative, competitive tension on the part of newspaper people, together with a powerful disposition against suppression of the news. So it is that when a communications company gets itself into the business of publishing both "news books" and newspapers it is almost certain to bump into some of its most deeply held journalistic principles on the way to the bank. That, we suggest, helps explain a large part of The New York Times's reaction to The Washington Post's publication of a news account of H. R. Haldeman's new book, "The Ends of Power," a few days in advance of its scheduled publication by the New York Times Company's book-publishing subsidiary.

Now, we don't deny that this was an inconvenience to The Times; scoops, as they say in the trade, do have a way of inconveniencing people. The Times subsidiary had sold excerpting rights to the book all over this country and abroad; the promotional drums were beginning to pound out not altogether accurate previews of what was coming; it was going to be a very big splash. But The Post was not a party to any of this -- not directly, and not on account of its corporate connection to Newsweek magazine (it is owned by the same parent company), which had bought excerpting rights. Wo when The Times reports that The Post broke the "official" publication date, that merely makes our point: that when news organization get into the business of managing the news, they tend to begin sounding less like news organizations and more like a government.

And when The Times editorially describes The Post's performance as a "second-rate burglary," we have to wonder if they can be serious. First-rate enterprise, we would have said. Let us stipulate that the memoirs of Mr. Haldeman, a convicted perjurer and Watergate conspirator, were news -- The Times obviously thought so. If The Times is suggesting some copyright infringement, legal counsel tells us that well-established "fair use" doctrine would have entitled The Post to publish precisely the same sort of news account of the book after the publication date as it did before -- and that it was in no way bound by a publication date that it had not agreed to. If The Times really means to suggest that The Post committed a burglary, we know of no reason to believe that --

It has occurred to us that The Times was joking. If so, we would hope that someday, when The Times or ourselves or another news organization may be subjected to legal challenge about the manner in which a story was reported, some attorney will not be so humorless as to read that editorial judgment to the court. For there is a fundamental journalistic principle here -- a First Amendment principle that was central to the Pentagon Papers case. And, if memory serves, The New York Times was in the forefront of those taking sharp issue with the argument that was being advanced by the Nixon administration's Justice Department. We have in mind the argument of John Mitchell, for example -- and, yes, H. R. Haldeman --that those "purloined papers" could not be published for the reason that somewhere along the line they had been "stolen" from the government.