NBC "Today" show anchorman Bryant Gumbel, interviewing the wife and daughter of American hostage Thomas Cullins Friday morning, sounded almost apologetic.

"As you know, critics are saying that media people, people like me, are using people like you, that we're bothering you, that we're making matters worse. Do you have some feelings like that?" Gumbel asked.

"I haven't found that to be the case yet," Mrs. Cullins, of Burlington, Vt., said. "And the only reason that we decided that we wanted to participate in coming on a show like yours is to try to air Tom's concerns and the concerns of the rest of the hostages.

"If we like it or not, television is a way of putting forth your views and to put pressure where pressure needs to be put," she said.

As the long first week of the nation's newest hostage crisis drew to an inconclusive close, the role of the media and especially that of television has loomed large in the drama of Trans World Airlines Flight 847, which has placed the lives of 40 Americans at stake.

Some critics charged that in the grueling competition to cover this story, the media invaded the privacy of families dealing with this crisis -- filming their grief, sharing their every panic or joy with millions of other Americans.

Others, including some administration officials and some former government leaders, are blaming the media for providing the vehicle that allows terrorists to state their demands.

And as the media began dealing with charges of exploitation, the primary question seemed to be: Who is exploiting whom?

Are the media, particularly television, helping transmit information to families, to Americans and even to the U.S. government about how these hostages are being treated? Are reporters keeping this issue alive for families who fear it will disappear in a diplomatic muddle? Or without the media, would it be happening at all?

Commenting on the news conference Thursday when five hostages faced a brawling, shouting crowd of international journalists, former secretary of state Henry A. Kissinger said in Dallas Thursday night, "I think what the media ought to consider is not to carry anything, including about the terrorists. If the terrorists didn't see in this the means of getting their message across, there would be less dog and pony shows like this one."

Those comments, which expressed openly what some administration officials were reported to be saying privately, have drawn a quick defense from those in the news business.

"That's a little strange coming from a man who has such a reputation for using the media," Peter Jennings, ABC's anchorman, said in a telephone interview Friday. "If I were a diplomat or a politician trying to extricate the hostages, I too would want to be in a situation where I would want to manipulate the media more than I know I could.

"We know as a matter of record that the terrorists will use the media as a platform," he added. "I think we are the conduit here, but should I stay away and not cover it? Do we not allow the terrorist to put his grievances on and hear only from the administration? I think not."

"Journalism is not a precise science. This is a crude art even on its best days," anchor Dan Rather of "CBS Evening News" said on the air yesterday morning. "With it all, I'll take the free press to the controlled media, which some of the self-serving political types in this country seem to really prefer.

"It's a totalitarian system where they say, 'We'll tell you what to say and when to say it,' " he added.

Moreover, news executives such as Timothy J. Russert, vice president of NBC News, said they see a sophisticated audience of American viewers whose understanding of the events is reinforced by commentators such as Roger Mudd, who reminded viewers that Thursday's news conference was also a "media circus."

"The American public is very smart, very sophisticated about what is being staged," Russert said. Added NBC Executive Vice President Tom Petit, "Public people do their number hoping to be on television and the hostage-holders are not different."

For a crisis as large as this one, the network coverage also spreads to more fundamental issues for the television business. Barbara Matusow, author of "The Evening Stars," said last week that excesses often happen because the networks compete not only journalistically but commercially for this story.

"The understanding is that as heartless as it sounds, big careers can be made by such an event, and there is an intense competition going on to get the story, to talk to the hostages families, to get it on the air first," she said.

The competition, which reached such a raucous pitch at Thursday's news conference that the hostages' captors almost called it off twice, has been an embarrassment to most American journalists.

"The only people who had real dignity in that room were the hostages themselves," Rather said in a telephone interview last week.

"Everybody knows if you put 1,000 people in a room all trying to get at the same thing, you will get this kind of scene," said William A. Leonard, former president of CBS News. "Nobody's proud of that, but for the individual sent by his editor to get the story, his editor doesn't pay that fellow to stay back in his motel room. When I was a reporter, they didn't pay me for not getting in there and mixing it up."

Similarly, media experts said that in the United States, television teams occasionally lost sight of the lessons learned from other tragedies, which too often featured cameras zooming in on people trying to cope with their sorrow.

When film of Navy officers walking up to inform the Robert Dean Stethem family of the death of their son was shown on the air, former White House press secretary Jody Powell said he gasped in dismay.

"I saw that and I said, 'Oh, my God, don't they ever learn,' " said Powell, who has become a columnist and television commentator. "You just provide ammunition to every yahoo and crackpot in the country that would like to see the First Amendment if not abolished, at least eviscerated.

"At times like this, people are looking for somebody to be mad at, to blame. Why deflect it from the people who deserve it -- the terrorists?" he said.

Still, some families apparently feel that the media, instead of invading their privacy, is providing a kind of technological linkup to millions of sympathetic Americans, helping make an event as important to others as it is to them.

"Personally, I never feel comfortable watching a member of the family watching their man appear on television for the first time," Jennings said.

"On the other hand, there is no obligation on the part of any of these people to invite us into their homes."

Jennings said that psychologists have told his staff that in some cases "there is actually a cathartic effect" in giving such an interview. He said that when the Marine compound was bombed in 1983, "people telephoned me and said, 'My son was killed, and why haven't you called me?' "

Louisa Kennedy told the American Society of Newspaper Editors a few months after her husband returned in 1981 from more than a year as a hostage in Iran that her anger was not aimed at the media.

"It was, in the final analysis, a great comfort to all of us that we were able to talk with the media, to act with it, to generally pursue what was terribly important to us: keeping the consciousness high in this country for the return of the hostages under the proper terms," she said.

"I think we accomplished it. And I hope we don't . . . try to criticize each other too much, because we did win that fight."