George F. Will makes an interesting defense ["Journalists and Politicians," op-ed, Jan. 14] of the fact -- which upset many of his readers -- that "the Reagans came to the Wills' for dinner." He asks the question, "Is journalistic duty compatible with feelings of friendship between journalists and those political people who do the work of democracy?" His answer is a resounding "Yep."

He is right -- in a limited sense -- but the question is important enough to deserve less shallow treatment than Will gives it. His assertions are ungenerous and untrue.

Will asserts that "the columnist's basic stance [is] thorough disapproval of all conduct but his own." He claims that those journalists who do not believe in friendly relations with politicians but rather in what Will calls an "adversary relationship" do so only "because it seems hairy chested, and because it spares them the torment of thought." And he says that the only reason he is now reluctantly addressing the issue at all is because "journalism . . . is now infested with persons who are little 'moral thermometers,' dashing about taking other persons' temperatures, spreading, as confused moralists will, a silly scrupulosity and other confusions."

What does all that amount to? Little more than distorted smears of the work of all other journalists, columnists included, save those who think and behave as does Will. And, moreover, a dismal lack of understanding of the essential purpose of the trade.

An editor on The Times of London once defined two basic forms of journalism: "from the outside looking in" and "from the inside looking out." Newspapers are heterogeneous places; there should be room for different kinds of writers, different perceptions. In a company town like Washington, it is quite understandable that some journalists should prefer to be on the inside looking out.

But Will makes no mention of the danger of this sort of work. It affects all sorts of specialist, insider journalism -- labor and diplomatic correspondents as well as some political columnists. Any journalist who needs to go back to his sources, again and again, is in danger of becoming their prisoner. A journalist who wishes to dine intimately with the most powerful of them is in double jeopardy. The prison of Georgetown is very comfortable.

This is not to say that the work of the insider is invalid. On the contrary, it is often helpful to know what people in power want the world to think they think. Sometimes the musings of insiders are informative, sometimes elegant. But their job is not the real stuff of journalism.

At times of election or inauguration, phrases like "the free world" tumble readily, understandably, from politicians' lips. But what are the qualities that make our world "free"? Astonishingly, Will considers that it is only politicians who, in his words, "do the work of democracy." I had always thought that the work of an independent press was also essential to "the work of democracy," and that, indeed, a "free press" is an integral part of the "free world."

What does a "free press" mean? Does it mean the freedom of journalists to be friends of David Rockefeller, Alexander Haig, the chairman of General Motors, the sheriff -- to invite the president of the mayor to dinner, to dine with them? I think not. Hacks on Pravda might do the same. d

What we mean is precisely the freedom of journalists not to massage or be massaged by the mighty. We mean the freedom of journalists to maintain a constant vigil over people in power -- if not, in Will's phrase, to be their "adversary." It is a precious freedom, to be exercised diligently. That almost always means being an outsider. It is a cliche now to recall that Watergate was not discovered by an elegant insider, over the brandy, but by Woodward and Bernstein, two young reporters who were unfettered by baggage. It was not an intimate of Cabinet ministers who uncovered My Lai or the domestic spying by the CIA but Seymour Hersh, who adjures the coziness in which Will luxuriates. It is that sort of work -- whether it's about the president, bankers, a drug company or the local cops -- that helps protect society and thus justifies the immense privilege of being a journalist.

George Will can behave as he wishes. But he should be aware -- as some of his readers are aware -- that his work is only the icing on the cake. Insider journalism is a luxury that can be afforded only if other journalists are on the outside doing the real, often tiring, mundane and inelegant "work of democracy."