More than anything else, newspapers catch hell about headlines. If not challenged for accuracy, headlines are denounced for being inflated or inflammatory. An exception so rare as to be noteworthy arose with criticism of the Post's Sept. 2 front-page banner "U.S. Says Soviets Shot Down Airliner."

"Why did you waffle it?" was the most polite of the provocative comments. Qualifying the headline with "U.S. Says," rather than the flat statement that a Soviet fighter shot down an unarmed civilian plane, was seen as an equivocation, and it irritated a fair number of subscribers. To some it was equivalent to saying, "U.S. Alleges Soviets Violate Nuclear Test Ban."

After all, the argument went, no less than the secretary of state said publicly that the Korean airliner was shot out of the sky by Soviet military aircraft and backed up his assertion by quoting from a transcript of radio exchanges between the fighter pilot and his commanders on the ground. Why hedge it?

The identical saving clause was used by The New York Times and The Baltimore Sun, and, as even some professionals observed, "it stuck out." Other papers like The Boston Globe transposed the qualifier so the headline read: "Soviets Shot Down Aircraft, U.S. Says." The Los Angeles Times wrote it head-on: "Soviets Down Jetliner; 269 Aboard."

Several Post critics assumed that editors were skeptical of the government's account and wrote the headline protectively. Not so, says deputy managing editor Richard Harwood, maintaining it was a straightforward summation of what the story reported. The headline "was not motivated by mistrust of the government," he said.

Of course, no one was prepared for Mr. Shultz's staggering disclosure.

The fate of the jet and its passengers had been in doubt for several hours. Following reports that it was missing, the plane was described in various news agency accounts as having landed safely, but under force, on Soviet-occupied Sakhalin island.

The stories were attributed principally to Korean Air Lines and the Korean Broadcasting Company, with some corroborating information from officials in Washington. Perhaps the most comprehensive account was AP's, used by The Post Sept. 1 on page one: "Missing Airliner Reported Safe on Soviet Island." It quoted Rep. Lawrence P. McDonald's brother in Atlanta: "We've just heard from the State Department . . . the plane is down and apparently the passengers are safe." An aide to the congressman, identified in the story, received similar word at the Pentagon.

Post editors inserted an item from Moscow in which the Reuter news agency reported a Japanese Embassy spokesman as saying that a Soviet foreign ministry official denied the plane had been forced to land on Sakhalin. AP described the Korean foreign ministry attempting to ascertain the facts, "including the alleged landing in Sakhalin."

USA Today, evidently compressing various news accounts, led the paper saying that airline officials "were working early today for the return of 269 people . . . who were safe on Sakhalin . . . ." The Los Angeles Times reported "Missing Jet Reportedly Lands on Soviet Island" on the front page. A UPI story carried by The Washington Times said that Korean television attributed the safe-landing report to the CIA, although an agency spokesman was quoted as saying he had no such information. A New York Times account, saying passengers and crew "were believed to be safe," included a remark from a Korean airline official "that an explosion might have occurred in midair."

Most Americans went to bed Aug. 31 aware only that a plane with an American congressman aboard was missing somewhere near the Soviet Union. It was not clear, and there was no way that news desks could know then, that many other Americans were among the passengers. AP noted there "apparently was one other" on the flight.

News editors everywhere were compelled to go with what they deemed available reliable information. Some of it came from official U.S. sources. Possibly the worst that worried people anticipated was that the plane had been hijacked. As it turned out, everyone was honestly misled. The unthinkable had occurred.