How come the seven summiteers at Tokyo had nothing specific to say in their master plan for the war against terrorism about the intrusions and excesses of the wayward press? Their silence probably reflected a sensible decision to concentrate on tactics and strategy for which they could hope to find common ground. I say ''sensible'' because even as the leaders in Tokyo were wrestling with the threat of terrorism, an extraordinary NBC interview with an arch-terrorist was confirming that when it comes to the performance of the media, there is no common ground.
In the aftermath of TWA 847, some representatives of news organizations were sympathetic to the need for self-enforced restraint. It was enough to suggest that there might be a way to proceed toward a consensus, within the news business, on what is legitimate exercise of freedom of the press. Then we get the NBC broadcast of an "exclusive" interview with Mohammed Abu Abbas.
Abbas is wanted by three countries: the United States, Italy and Israel. The State Department has a $250,000 price on his head. He is credited with masterminding the hijacking of the Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro and responsible for the murder of an American passenger, Leon Klinghoffer.
Abbas, together with the four captured hijackers, was on board a Tunis-bound Egyptian airliner when it was intercepted by U.S. Navy planes and forced to land in Italy. But the Italians let Abbas go. His precise role in the hijacking at that time was not clear.
But it was clear when NBC put him on the air; he was a fugitive from justice. The most newsworthy thing about him was where he was. Yet NBC agreed to keep that news a secret as a condition for getting the interview. With his unknown hiding place safely protected, Abbas was able to deliver to any impressionable follower of his own Palestine Liberation Front, or any other terrorist group, an incendiary call to arms.
All Americans, with President Reagan as ''Enemy No. 1,'' were fair targets for terrorist attacks, Abbas said. In reprisal for the U.S. raid on Libya, he went on, his organization must go to work in the United States as well as anywhere in the world that Americans could be targeted. ''America is now conducting the war against us on behalf of Israel,'' he said. ''We therefore have to respond against America in America itself.''
The State Department's man in charge of counterterrorism, Robert Oakley, called NBC an ''accomplice'' to Abbas. State Department spokesman Charles Redman said that giving a terrorist that sort of publicity ''encourages the terrorist activities we are all seeking to deter.'' They're both right, the more so when you consider the banality, not to mention the piety, of NBC's defense.
Lawrence K. Grossman, president of NBC News, couldn't understand how the State Department could criticize the Soviet Union for not reporting the nuclear accident at Chernobyl while at the same time asking that ''we refrain from broadcasting news that we don't like.'' That is baloney. The case against NBC rests not so much with broadcasting unwelcome news as it does with the price paid for the broadcast. The cover-up of the whereabouts of Abbas is no different from the Soviet cover-up of Chernobyl: both put lives at risk.
''Abbas is a news maker, and we went after him hammer and tong,'' Grossman said, leaving us to believe the unbelievable: that NBC had run Abbas to ground with no help from Abbas. ''Everybody went after him,'' Grossman said, leaving us to think that NBC had simply gotten there first. Actually, The New York Times says it had the same opportunity to interview Abbas, on the same terms, and turned it down.
''We like to interview all leaders,'' Grossman said proudly. ''I think it's important for the American people to understand and be informed and to make their own judgments.''
Now that is a beautiful thought. But it does not seem to put much value on American lives. What it says is that it is important for the American people to know that Abbas wants to kill them wherever they can be found -- but it is apparently not important for them to know where Abbas can be found.