FROM ITS RIVAL networks, Congress and the White House come sharp criticisms of NBC News for its prime-time interview of an American hostage in the hands of his Iranian captors and an accompanying message delivered by one of the terrorists, ABC and CBS were quick to claim foul on journalistic grounds -- charging that the whole thing was a propaganda package and that NBC News in some way sold out by agreeing to certain conditions set by the Iranian captors, including the broadcast of a "message" from one of them. And White House spokesmen and members of Congress pointed to distortions in the televised statements and voiced anxiety over "TV diplomacy." All of these criticisms, though understandable in the overheated climate of Tehran, are unfair.

First, the high-sounding complaints of ABC and CBS executives ring hollow in light of what they wound up doing after the NBC interview: on Tuesday morning, each aired a brief interview with the very same hostage -- but conducted by one of the Iranian captors and given to the networks by the Iranian committee. NBC News, meanwhile, notes that it 1) refused a proposal that an Iranian join its reporters in the interview, 2) submitted no questions in advance and 3) retained editorial control. In each instance, the network explained what it was airing and the conditions surrounding the coverage.

With that understanding, the message in these interviews -- no matter how repulsive or outrageous viewers found it -- was certainly news, just as the accounts of a visiting congressman or international representatives are worth hearing. The fact that today's terrorists can come up with clever ways to attract worldwide attention and sometimes misplaced sympathy is indeed disturbing, as Walter Cronkite of CBS notes elsewhere on this page (For the Record). But except where a clear and direct harm will result from its attention (all news organizations are accustomed to practicing certain discretions and subterfuges in relation to kidnap, hijack and other hostage-taking cases), the press should not be expected to conduct some kind of propaganda control on its coverage.

Given the extreme delicacy of the situation, there is bound to be nervous reaction in the White House when the terrorists take to television. But unless this coverage clearly endangers the lives of the hostages, the administration should not worry. One of the indisputable effects of the TV coverage of the squalid events in Tehran, including the statements of those reckless people who claim to be its government and who are holding the hostages, is that it has, if anything, made clearer to the public just how cynical the hostage-holding operation is.