Even as the crescendo of emotion rises toward the return of the recent hostages to this country, there ae difficult and searching questions for the press to ask itself about its performance over the last 14 months.

It is not a happy assignment. In a week when the deepest national feelings overwhelm language, when the hostages' release overwhelms an inauguration and when the return will overwhelm a mid-winter festival called the Super Bowl, it is even harder.

The toughest part of the hostage story is still to be written, tougher because it will not have the dramatic appeal of national pride and anger held captive by a distant revolution, and tougher because the 52 Americans have been elevated into heroes on their way to becoming legends. The difficulty is multiplied because, for the first time in a generation, it is popular for Americans to be patriotic, furious and proud all at once and all together.

The hostage story is shot full of questions, and answers may or may not be obtainable. For the press, they have to start with an examination of the reporting that has gone before.

Was the press, in any degree, a party to Iranian tactics, interpreting moves and pronouncements as possible concessions to American will? Should it have been more cautious? Did it lose its cool? Was it possible, given absolute control of information by Iranian authorities, to have avoided the captors' fits and starts that played havoc with the reading and watching American public? Did the press, by writing and broadcasting feverish bits of news, inflame the situation? And if so, did it have alternatives?

Has the American press become captive to its own capabilities; that is, do its splendid technologies influence the substance of what is conveyed? And did the Iranians take full advantage of that technology for their own purposes? If that is true, has the coverage of the Iranian obscenity set a precedent for other countries that might be tempted to have their own day in the American spotlight? And, to follow that could this mean the genius of American communications may contribute to a situation that can only be resolved by the use of American power?

Was one of the most precious and vulnerable of American freedoms -- the freedom of the press, which really means freedom of inquiry -- perverted into a weapon aimed directly at the heart of American nationalism and self-esteem? If so, how is it possible to avoid that while carrying on the press's basic responsibility of informing its readers and watchers about what is going on?

As for the rest of the story, there are many sides. What were the abuses? How did the capture happend at all? What are the details of the alleged secret negotiations? What are the consequences? And what of the hostages themselves? How much of their privacy should be public despite the public emotion invested in them? They are human, and overweening public attention can be as distorting to them as their captivity.

Beyond all this, there are questions of perception and culture that have conspicuous international power and influence. Did we fail in some basic understanding of the Iranians' revolution? Did the press do its job in helping to understand it? Did we simply overlook the obvious? Why, for example, did those menacing guns used in unspeakable terror against the hostages not go off when killing is so commonplace? Is it possible for the press to inform us better about critical and behavioral differences that can sweep us up? If so, how?

And those are only some of the early questions.