Not that it's new, or perhaps even news, but the press is taking a beating again.

The Reagan administration has threatened to file prior-restraint court suits to stop publication of articles it deems damaging to the national interest. At the same time, it has raised the specter of employing polygraph tests to ferret out enemies within who pass classified material to the press without. Officials warn darkly about grave abuses to the national security unless this flood of information is checked.

All of this is familiar. From George Washington to Ronald Reagan, every president has railed against perceived excesses of press power, and that includes the patron saint of the press, Thomas Jefferson. Before he became president, Jefferson took the view that, had he to choose between "a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government," he unhesitatingly would take the papers over the government. That's not how he felt in office. Among harsh criticisms leveled by President Jefferson was the following: "The abuses of the freedom of the press here have been carried to a length never before known or borne by any civilized nation."

So the latest high-level huggermugger about media sins should come as no surprise, especially in an administration so obsessed with image and controlling news "leaks" -- i.e., news it doesn't leak. Besides, if the Reagan administration believes that security is being compromised, it has a responsibility to take steps to protect the national interest, just as the press has a duty to insist on its rights in assessing whether information it publishes is in the public interest.

These kinds of conflicts are inevitable and probably essential in a democratic society. I, for one, am not even slightly worried about the Orwellian possibility that the White House "plumbers" will be given a second birth in the mid-1980s and then prevail by stifling freedom of expression and/or inhibiting press criticism of abuses of governmental power. After nearly 200 years of wrestling with such inherent conflicts, the courts and the public are more than competent to strike the proper balance between liberty and security.

Something more than these age-old conflicts is troubling about the present climate pitting government against press. That is the notion that the press has a patriotic duty to refrain from reporting critically about certain areas of government even though no specific claim is asserted for media violations of national security. The all-embracing claim here is that such critical reporting would be damaging to a larger and amorphous "vital national interest." Exhibit A in this accentuate-the-positive news is, of all things, the space agency.

Over the past generation, at a time of general disillusionment with government spawned by the overpromisings and failures of Great Society programs and the twin disasters of Watergate and Vietnam, no federal agency enjoyed better, more cheering press coverage than the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. No agency proved more successful at elevating public relations, and manipulating public opinion, into an art form.

Now comes the space agency's new boss, James C. Fletcher, who is also one of its former chiefs and who should know better, with an astonishing plea for the press to back off. In the wake of the Challenger space shuttle disaster four months ago, he seems to see a media conspiracy aimed at destroying the space agency.

To Fletcher, the portrait drawn by unspecified elements of the media is "not a NASA that has done magnificent and creative things, but a NASA that has always made mistakes and a NASA that never got its act together . . . . I believe it creates a distorted image of who we are and what we are about." Such unfair and distorted coverage not only could do "irreparable" damage to the space agency but also damage the nation, he contends.

What utter nonsense. Here, John F. Kennedy's lesson about the press and the Bay of Pigs 25 years ago is worth recalling. Kennedy persuaded The New York Times not to disclose information in advance of the invasion and later regretted it. He came to believe that public airing of that hapless adventure in Cuba could have prevented him from making a tragic mistake.

Given NASA's record, as it has emerged since the Challenger tragedy, the nation and the space program would have been better served by tougher, not softer, reporting over the years.