"Viewpoint," the useful ABC program that gives critics of television news a chance to confront its perpetrators, recently devoted 90 minutes to "Crime, Violence and TV News."

Although more was bitten off than could be chewed, troubling questions were raised about the evening's hottest issue, the coverage of crimes committed by young black men.Jeff Greenfield's scene-setting and Ted Koppel's questions were well aimed, and the criticism by the black panelists - among them the writer Ishmael Reed; the Rev. Calvin Butts III, a prominent New York City minister; Fred Thomas, the Washington chief of police; Rep. Walter Tucker III, D-Calif., and several journalists - was unsparing.

Here, in sum, is the charge:

- Crime stories, staples of local-news programs, lack context. In the competition to be first with live reports on death and other carnage, these programs often deliver pictures of the consequences of violence before many of the facts are in.

Greenfield quoted the news producer's adage: "If it bleeds, it leads."

- As a reflection of a skewed justice system, white criminals are treated more gently on the tube than black criminals, and not enough attention is paid to ordinary, law-abiding black families.

There is a paucity of positive stories about black life to counter the steady stream of blood and bullets.

- Too few black programmers hold decision-making jobs in television.

The problem is more serious than some of the complaints. Whatever the deficiencies of the police and the courts, for television purposes white crime is just as welcome as black crime.

Amy Fisher, Joel Rifkin, Leona Helmsley, the Los Angeles police officers who beat Rodney King and many others have received hours of unflattering tube time.

Local television news, after all, is an offspring of tabloid newspapers, and they have always doted on villains, race no object.

Still, the suspects seen on television being arrested in muggings and shootings are almost always black men in their teens and 20s, and they figure hugely in the prevailing anxiety, among blacks as well as whites, over personal safety. Nobody is afraid of Leona Helmsley.

Reed's call for more stories about cocaine use in white, middle-class suburbs is simply a distraction.

The rules of journalism require that violent crimes be covered, but it is the rules of the tabloids that require them to be covered prominently, frequently and graphically.

The crime of the local-news shows is not that they treat whites better or don't report enough positive stories about blacks.

(There are plenty of those, although the doings of hard-working, honest citizens, of whatever shade, have never sold newspapers).

It is that their thirst for blood is unslakable. If a fresh murder is not available, a nasty accident will serve.

You don't have to be black to be distressed by the result or concerned about its impact.

Some nights, the attention given to crimes of violence turns reality into the surreal.

No positive stories can compete with the recurrent images of shackled black youths.

Add to this the near-hysterical language of the television reporters, whose vocabularies are not by and large extensive (what would they do without the words "tragic" and "shocking" and "brutal"?), and daily life becomes a theater of horror. (Network news, too, has been focusing more on crime lately, but in a less Gothic mood.)

Such has always been the stuff of the tabloids, on the principle that the higher the anxiety level, the better for business.

Greenfield's call for more reporting about the suffering and pain caused by inner-city violence to complement or replace the pictures of corpses is just an invitation to another, softer sort of tabloid-ism, which in fact is by no means neglected by local-news shows.

Unfortunately, that may be as much as one can hope for, but it only reinforces the identification of blacks with crime, whether as victims or criminals.

If, as Butts desires, there were more blacks running news departments, there would presumably be more sensitivity to the messages being sent forth.

But black executives, too, would be under the pressure of ratings, and in that competition, instant crime in the form of punchy pictures that tell strong, simple stories is premium merchandise.

Surveys reported on "Viewpoint" indicate that most Americans think there is too much violence on the tube.

That may be what they tell survey takers, and they can also tell it to the marines.

The men and women who run local stations know better. The success of the bloody-minded so-called reality-based shows and the proliferating news magazines, whose stock in trade is crime, is a more convincing measure.

My impression as a constant viewer is that the reporters, news directors and even executives at most local stations, at least in New York City, have been making an effort to present positive stories about black families and to give more time to other aspects of city life than bloodshed.

The black anchors and reporters themselves are admirable role models.

So the programs seem to be improving, at least around the edges, but the content is still chronically tilted toward mayhem.

Exactly what affects this grisly diet (which is peculiarly garnished with lighthearted chitchat like watercress on raw hamburger) has on its audiences remains unclear, but even its practitioners do not contend it can be wholesome.

Yet how much can even the best-intentioned of them do about it, tempted as they must be by the technical wonders of the medium and constrained by its economic imperatives?

Their line of work, which features fast, easy, cheap, on-the-spot grabbers, does not allow for much background or interpretation, and the competition to keep viewers tuned to their channels works strongly against anything that strains the mind.

News directors feed their audience sweetened sensationalism because nutritious fare can be risky.

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That observation is not offered as an excuse for surrender, just as a fact of existence in commercial television.

More power, then, to programs like "Viewpoint" for at least drawing attention to the ailment and compelling some of the professionals to explain what they think they are up to.

The success of Koppel's "Nightline" indicates that there is an audience for something different.

Things do change, and disgusted viewers must take what hope they can from the change in public taste since crowds were drawn to reality-based entertainment in the form of hangings and beheadings.

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