NEW YORK, AUG. 20 -- While many New Yorkers waited in uneasy silence last week for a verdict in the racially charged Central Park jogger rape case, Bill Tatum wondered aloud why anyone thought there had been a rape at all.

"There is just no evidence of a rape, none," said Tatum, 56, the portly, stylish editor and publisher of the Amsterdam News, the city's oldest and most influential black newspaper. "Something bad happened that night, but they certainly can't say it's rape."

After 10 days of often bitter deliberations, a Manhattan Supreme Court jury disagreed, convicting all three teenagers of rape, robbery, assault and riot. But none of that has muddied Tatum's view of this case as the work of racially motivated prosecuters with the mentality of a lynch mob.

His assertions, repeated often and published in his weekly paper, have left many readers here, black and white, stunned and angry. But the Amsterdam News, which sees itself as one of the few voices willing to carry the truth to black New Yorkers in troubled times, has no fear of causing outrage. And although city leaders are quick to condemn the paper for its breezy publication of the slightest innuendo, almost none is willing to take it on in public.

"Other newspapers report on our community," Mayor David N. Dinkins (D) said. "The Amsterdam News is based in it. Therefore, in many instances, it is able to provide its readers with a more accurate view of the African-American experience."

The Amsterdam, as it is frequently called, carries weight not just as a newspaper but also as one of the city's most prominent black-run enterprises. But some of its former supporters say the paper has drifted from its stated goal of informing blacks and promoting their achievements.

They cite its inflammatory reporting on the jogger trial, its allegiance to such incendiary public figures as the Rev. Al Sharpton and its insistence that Dutchess County teenager Tawana Brawley was raped by white police officers although virtually all other media outlets and a New York grand jury have concluded that her celebrated case was a hoax.

The paper's coverage of the jogger trial repeatedly startled its readers with its openly antagonistic reporting, never as strikingly as at the close of testimony in the seven-week trial.

In its Aug. 11 issue, the paper reported that much of what its reporter referred to as "evidence" -- including a full moon, unconfirmed reports of a ring of fire in the park and the fact that the victim lost three-fourths of her blood -- suggested that, instead of a brutal assault and gang rape, a Satanic ritual occurred in Central Park on the night of April 19, 1989.

"The media called the attack 'wilding by a group of wolf packs,' " reporter Vinette K. Pryce wrote in her front-page article on the closing of testimony. "They did not manage to report on the 'ring of fire,' which was said to be soaring 100 feet into the air near the area where the jogger was found." Police said they had no such reports.

"It's humiliating to all of us," said one of the city's top black officials, who, like other elected and appointed leaders, would speak only if his name were withheld. "We deserve much better from our most important paper."

Many blacks, who grew up relying on The Amsterdam for information that the major, white-run papers rarely cover, have given up on the publication, which reports a circulation of slightly more than 40,000, less than half of the total in its glory days during the early 1960s.

At that time, the Harlem-based publication often filled a role similar to that of the 19th century political press, as a major advocate in the jarring battles for civil rights.

Although it no longer is considered essential reading for informed New Yorkers, politicians still court its approval. And while many people in this media-hungry town have said they loathe Tatum's rambling and provocative editorials, he is difficult to ignore. Many of those who watch The Amsterdam express remorse about lost opportunity.

"It had a chance to be a powerful and important paper," said a black reporter for one of city's major dailies. He, like other blacks critical of the paper, asked not to be named. "But it walked away. Bill Tatum is not really a serious man."

Tatum's editorial Aug. 11 was titled, "Jogger Trial: The Lynching Attempt That Must Not Succeed."

"The truth of the matter," he wrote, "is there is no evidence that connects these boys to the crime. The 'confessions' {videotaped and graphic descriptions of the crime provided to detectives by two of the three defendants} clearly tainted and illegally obtained, should not have been allowed into evidence."

Tatum, like defense attorneys for the three youths accused of raping and assaulting the jogger, contended throughout that police officers rounded up the trio in a dragnet because they were in the park after dark on a night when violence occurred. Further, he discounted the only hard evidence presented by the prosecution, the videotaped confessions, saying that the youths were scared and, in order to be allowed to go home, would have done whatever they were told.

"This whole trial has gotten so much publicity that it does not deserve," Tatum said during a recent interview that began in his downtown office and continued in his chauffeur-driven car where it was punctuated by calls on his car phone.

"Twenty-eight other women were raped in this town that week," he said. "A black woman in Fort Tryon Park was almost beheaded after she was raped. But she was a prostitute, so who cares? Another black woman was raped and thrown from the roof. It was a two-day story.

"But the jogger was the American Dream of what America never was and never will be: blonde, blue-eyed and perfect. She was what American wants to believe it is and, whoever assaulted the jogger, assaulted the American Dream."

Tatum has become a noted and besieged figure in the city. He received death threats after publishing the jogger's name in his editorials. "I don't have a policy against printing the name," he said. "The white press certainly never minded printing Tawana Brawley's name."

Even his most bitter opponents admit that he is charming and witty, an easy man to talk to and fast to laugh at himself.

"He's suave," said former mayor Edward I. Koch (D), who denounced Tatum each time he had the opportunity and whose reelection bid, according to Tatum, was overcome by Dinkins last year in part because of the tireless efforts of the Amsterdam News.

"He's silky, but if you listen to him, he makes no sense," Koch said. "People are afraid of Bill Tatum because they know that, if you take on any cause he doesn't like, he will brand you as a racist.

None of that bothers Wilbert A. Tatum.

"You can call me anything you want, but I own my paper, lock, stock and barrel, and there is not a living person who can tell me how to run it," said Tatum, chewing on antacid tablets he keeps in a big jar on his desk.

"I know what the whites say, and they are right. I got an attitude. But we wouldn't be doing our job, we wouldn't be a newspaper if we were feeding people what they want to read."