Occasionally someone calls to denounce The Washington Post for being a knee-jerk liberal publication, and I respond by saying that I have no idea what they mean. Is a paper that supports the MX missile liberal? How about one that features on its op-ed page William F. Buckley Jr., James J. Kilpatrick, Evans and Novak and which gave the world George Will and now threatens to do the same with Charles Krauthammer? My God, if this be doctrinaire liberalism then Joseph Kraft is a Bolshevik.

My callers are often nonplussed. Surely you jest, they say (conservatives talk that way), and, although I don't admit it, I do. I know what they really mean when they call The Post or any news organization liberal. Usually, they mean it does a good job. On behalf of The Post, I plead guilty to that. And on behalf of many other newspapers I enter the same plea. In fact, while I am at it, I also plead the networks guilty. They do a pretty good job too.

It's no accident that the better journalistic enterprises are considered liberal by people like Sen. Jesse Helms. He has asked his supporters to buy CBS stock so that, eventually, they may take over the network. Then it would be curtains for Dan Rather and that whole liberal bunch, including, of course, Phyllis George. They all would presumably be replaced by something that does not yet exist -- people without political beliefs. Failing that, we may presume that conservatives would be asked to man the network.

There are a couple of things to be said about this and they are both questions. Why is the term liberal always used as if it were not a perfectly respectable political belief but vaguely un-American, alien, wrong, unnatural? No one ever accuses a newspaper of being conservative with anywhere near the vehemence that's used when the word liberal is employed. For some reason, conservative is thought to be the natural order of things -- like rivers running to the sea -- when it's often smug indifference going by another name.

The second question is this: So what? So what if a paper or a network is controlled by liberals? What does it mean? Helms cites one survey showing that 81 percent of journalists queried voted for George McGovern. Precisely. McGovern, as I recall, lost in a landslide. Alas, that's very often the case. Ronald Reagan, by the grace of God and 49 states, is the president and the nation is smack dab in what may someday be seen as the Golden Age of conservatism. A lot of good the liberal media did.

So what is Helms talking about? What's the effect of this so-called liberal bias? Helms really has in mind an outlook, a world view. The one he denounces as liberal is one most journalists would call professional. It is a mentality that entails skepticism, aggressiveness in news gathering and, I suppose, holding the wacky belief that, say, poverty is usually a better story than prosperity. To hold otherwise is to impose the political standard to news that Helms says is already there.

That organizational mentality is usually what comes to be called liberal. Once an organization embodies it, it will inevitably seem to be an agent of social change and, therefore, liberal. Even The Wall Street Journal, an editorial bastion of conservatism, would look liberal to anyone who read only the news pages. It's that good a paper.

In the end, then, Jesse Helms is not talking partisan politics when he bemoans the press's alleged liberal bias. He is complaining about its vitality, its energy, its determination sometimes to confront the nation with the worst news of all -- bad news. Such a press is neither liberal nor conservative, but the best kind of watchdog a nation could have -- hungry.