When bearded, cold-eyed hostage-takers assemble their victims at the point of a gun and whistle up the television cameras to make their case, the "media" turn into a stage for terrorism, and Henry Kissinger turns apoplectic.

"It is a humiliation for the United States to have American citizens trotted out one by one, being forced to say they're being treated well," Kissinger said (on television) the other day. "I think what the media ought to consider is not to carry anything, including the terrorists."

Not carry anything? Not even Henry Kissinger hustling from one network studio to another, logging at least equal time with Nabih Berri, exploiting the same stage to inflame public passion in support of a course of action sharply at odds with the policy that the government in power is struggling to pursue?

Along the way, Kissinger demanded "no concessions, no negotiations and retaliation when this is over." He insisted that the administration "make it absolutely clear that any damage to any American will lead to very violent reprisals." He even suggested that "to some extent" the administration's earlier "failure to retaliate" in response to the bombing of the Marine compound in Lebanon "may have been a contributing factor" to the hostage taking.

Manipulation of the media, then, has everything to do with the quality of the message and with who's sending it: uncivilized barbarians, accomplices to hostage-taking, or the elite of the American establishment. It will not surprise you that this message-carrying member of the media thinks this proposition stands the problem on its head. In an age when camera angles, photo opportunities and the easy command of network prime time have become a political art form -- with the media as willing collaborators -- manipulation of the media is not the issue.

The solution to what is, indeed, a real problem, turns on actual consequences, established values in an open society, practical alternatives. I won't overburden you with boilerplate defenses: we're talking about a fiercely competitive free enterprise; the alternative is a news business subsidized and controlled by government. So, yes, a freewheeling press gets in the way of orderly foreign policy-making.

But if we can stipulate that government censorship of the end product is not the answer, serious concern has to center on sensible restraints at the source -- imposed by government discipline and discretion, or self-imposed by the news business itself. It comes down in the end, not to dogma but to cases.

Reckless speculation about troop deployments, it is generally agreed, endangers lives. In this case, reports of the dispatch of the U.S. Delta force to Cyprus broke the rules. Yet, it has to be noted that for every such report there is usually a government source.

Much less is to be said for the Kissinger case: that the hostages and their captors should be neither seen nor heard by American audiences. The hostages said they were being well-treated, were opposed to any rescue effort and were in favor of a swap for Israel's Shiite prisoners. That this did not fit the Kissinger theory of the case does not mean it wasn't so, and still less that they were "forced" to say it.

You could argue that the hostages were better positioned than anybody to judge the chances of a rescue effort, if only because they knew more than anybody else about the conditions under which they were being held -- the level of security, the locations.

The argument is heard that Nabih Berri should not be given access, over the head of the U.S. government, to the American public. But if he is part of the problem, and potentially a part of the solution, surely American TV viewers are sturdy enough to be trusted to take their measure of all the players. If not, who is to pick and choose?

That's really the nub of it: the confidence you have, or don't have, as the case may be, in the good sense of the American people. If the news coverage has been obsessive and overwhelming, that is in the nature of the beast. If, as a consequence, it plays into the hands of terrorists, the American people are smart enough to take that into account.

In any case they are at least as likely to be swayed by so prestigious a figure as Henry Kissinger as they are by a bearded gunman in Beirut. Not being dummies, they may even have a better sense than the media critics and public-relations junkies in the thick of policy- making of what they are seeing -- and when they've seen enough.