The Watergate cataclysm left America changed in countless ways. Among these changes, it is at least arguable that the most profound is a sharply heightened sense of skepticism on the part of the press when dealing with statements by U.S. government figures. No longer is there any acceptance of the proposition that if the president says it, it is true; indeed, the opposite often obtains. The president's press spokesman is regarded as a practiced -- and occasionally -- talented liar. The press gives no quarter in the battle to bring the truth, the facts, to a public hungry to know.

It is, therefore, puzzling that the very reporters and commentators who probed every word President Nixon uttered, who laughed behind their hands at the idea that President Ford could ski and who lift a dubious eyebrow when President Carter logs his miles-jogged statistics are able to swallow uncritically the most transparent propaganda if it comes from a foreign source.

Take the case of the Iranian "students." The Tehran government -- if the shrewd but lawless fanatics who currently speak for that unhappy nation can be so dignified -- announced on Nov. 4 that the U.S. Embassy had been overrun by students thirsting to force the wicked Americans to turn over the former shah for trial. The American press -- from The New York Times, The Washington Post, Walter Cronkite and John Chancellor on down (Richard Valeriani was a rare exception) -- docilely reported on these "students" and their demands.

The first reaction of the reader or viewer is, I suspect, likely to be one of bemused tolerance. Here in America in the 1960s, genuine students did indeed engage -- quite successfully -- in legitimate political activity. Every American family has a student or two, rosy-cheeked and earnest. They are sometimes given to rowdy excess, to be sure, but boys will be boys. Can Iranian students be all that different?

Alas, our keen reporters do not answer for us questions that beg to be asked. What schools do these people attend? Are the weeks spent trespassing on American property while kidnapping American diplomats excused absences? Is the whole scene a bizarre fraternity initiaton? Do these students engage in terror for credit? If so, what course are they taking, American Humiliation 101?

The fact is that these young Iranians are political terrorists, blackmailers and kidnappers, and they should be so labeled. Yet after 40 days of this nightmare, the Iranian description persists: they are "students" to the gullible.

This case is not an isolated one. Another prime example is the word "socialist." It is far from rare to read that the "socialist bloc" claims this or that, or to hear even U.S. diplomats speak of the "socialist" nations. The unwary conjure a picture of gentle Fabians taking tea in their London salons, clucking earnestly at capitalist outrages. Or of Harold Wilson puffing benignly on his pipe. Or Norman Thomas running with equal measure of jollity and futility for president of the United States every four years.

Again, we are unwary. "Socialist" is a euphemism used by the communist propaganda apparat. It is employed when frankness is deemed unadvisable, and the usage is parroted by people who feel it is somehow impolite or McCarthyite to call someone a communist. The State Department, in a message to all posts in 1976, warned U.S. diplomats to disguise communist rapacity with socialist respectability, but the message has not gotten through.

In June of this year, Havanna played host to an international meeting, that of the "non-aligned" nations. The unaligned movement was begun decades ago by Tito of Yugoslavia and Nehru of India and, as conceived, it had a certain validity. Today, the story is different. The Soviet lap dog, Fidel Castro, is president of the group for the next three years; and despite valiant efforts by certain countries such as Yugoslavia and Egypt to maintain the integrity of the original name, the Havana meeting became a forum for ritual anti-American screeds. "Non-aligned," nonetheless, seldom appears in quotation marks or prefaced with a consumer-beware warning such as "so-called." (FTC, where are you?)

Sloppy word usage is by no means the sole proprietorship of the press. Sen. Edward Kennedy, in attacking the shah as among the worst rulers in history, is equally guilty. Whatever his shortcomings, the shah cannot be classified by reasonable men with Hitler, Stalin and Pol Pot; that Khomeini lives is proof enough that Pahlavi did not eradicate all his opponents. Had the shah's crimes been Hitlerian in magnitude, surely the senator would not have supped so often at Iran's table. The senator's hyperbole merely lends credibility to the rancid ravings of the ayatollah, who is -- let's use the proper words -- our enemy.

Americans, press and politicians alike should read words with as much care as they do medicine labels, for words are potent and potentially poisonous. Misrepresentation and manipulation from abroad must be avoided; to do otherwise is to go, semantically, to Munich.