From Time magazine Mikhail Gorbachev got no questions on human rights. From Sen. Robert Byrd, visiting him in the Kremlin, he got a solid statement of the American concern on this issue, as on others. Sen. Byrd's is the right way. President Reagan, who is to meet Gorbachev in November, is one of the last people you would expect to shy clear of the contentious human rights issue in order to soothe the summit atmosphere. But bringing it up leaves hanging all the tough questions of how and to what end.

Not that the president is short on advice. The scheduling of the summit is bringing the people who represent aggrieved individuals and groups to the White House door. They include the prodigiously devoted family of prisoners Andrei Sakharov and Anatoly Scharansky and spokesmen for would-be Soviet Jewish emigr,es. They and spokesmen for victims less publicized but no less entitled to relief -- Ukrainians and Balts, for instance -- are working the political and journalistic circuits in their fashion.

Some Americans think that the stick of bad publicity and the carrot of good publicity may be enough to make Moscow do a bit of selective relenting on the eve of a summit. The record gives only scant comfort, but we of the media can scarcely help pitching in. It makes us journalists a part of the political machinery, but there are worse uses of the press. Certainly a media role in helping people get free, or freer, beats a media cop-out, which amounts to missing not just a story but also a duty.

The reason the Kremlin does not bend to publicity is not simply that it is heartless and has no domestic opinion to weigh. The Soviets appreciate the international uses of publicity, but they stiffen at the thought of bending to pressure, imagining that it may be taken as a display of weakness in other areas. The result is that they regard human rights initiatives not as desirable or natural or even as obligatory in the light of domestic laws and international commitments but as dangerous, and therefore as necessitating a compensating concession or gain.

In a fundamental sense, they are right to treat human rights as a Western disease. For a time it was possible for some of us to believe that, basically, all we had to do was sit back and allow "d,etente" to flower: human rights improvements would follow. But the Soviet leaders, never letting their eye stray from the priority of domestic control, received d,etente the way some of its Western supporters intended it: as, among other things, a form of subversion, something that would give Soviet citizens ideas. Observing the popular expectations thus stirred, the authorities tightened up. It could happen again.

True, it wasn't exactly as simple as that. Jewish emigration was cut off, after surges in the Nixon and early Carter periods, perhaps not so much because the idea of emigration was spreading as because the Kremlin was failing to get the trade and political gains it sought from the United States in return.

Americans may believe it is demeaning if not immoral to have to bargain over human rights. Enraging as it is, however, if our first goal is to help people in distress and not just to frame Moscow in a light that exposes its true colors, we must deal with the Soviet perception that the last time around, in the 1970s, they got the short end.

Here we come to the openness that is the pride of those who live under our system and the burden of those who lead it. Many different people and groups offer views on how the president should bargain for human rights. Withhold all trade until Moscow delivers big, some say. Offer a bit of trade for bait, say others. Take arms control hostage. Offer political concessions in the Middle East. And so on.

Our debate is not so much over the relative merits of Kissinger-type "quiet diplomacy" and Carter-Reagan-type upfrontness: that's style. It is over substance: what should be on the bargaining table, who should fill the hand and play the cards.

Members of the public hesitate to publicly acknowledge a requirement for self-discipline, but a measure of chastening is evident as the human rights community contemplates the costs of overreaching in the past. The administration is showing its heart and preparing to make sure the Kremlin knows of its concern, but it also appears aware that to pile on large demands in public bids up the price Moscow may feel Washington is ready to pay and puts at some additional risk a human rights enterprise that teeters already on the edge of collapse. A new message may be getting across: Less, perhaps, is more.