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WE LIVE IN AN AGE of Gotcha Journalism.

Too often, stories are leaked and pursued for their ability to shock and shame, not illuminate and improve. And nowhere is the gonzo art of Gotcha performed with stilettos as steely sharp, aimed by eyes as steely cold, as by those who ply our mutually dependent crafts of politics and the media in Washington, D.C.Yet even those in the most powerful and least forgiving city on the planet were jolted by the tragic news that inquiries from journalists at Newsweek - in this case, proper inquiries, properly pursued - had led to the death by suicide of the Navy's top officer, Adm. Jeremy Michael Boorda. A much-admired officer who was battling to restore the honor of a Navy plagued by recent scandals took his life rather than answer Newsweek's questions about a transgression of personal and comparatively minor nature.

The chief of naval operations had worn two metal "V" (for valor under combat) insignias on his Vietnam War ribbons that he apparently had never been officially certified to wear; the two ships on which he served off the Vietnam coast never came under enemy fire.

So we paused just long enough to pay our respects. But we ought to reflect as well upon just what it is that some of us do in the name of politics and journalism that leads most who get caught in our cross hairs to conclude that they have no chance at all of getting a fair hearing or a balanced report once today's media catches a scent.

That has been a rather common and valid plaint in Washington for years. We heard it from those at the staff level who came under attack: Bert Lance in the '70s; Edwin Meese in the '80s; Vincent Foster (who also took his own life) in the '90s. And we've heard it from those major targets at the majordomo level: from Newt Gingrich and from Bill and Hillary Rod- ham Clinton.

We in the media are especially prone these days to spotting someone who is down - and then piling on. Just two weeks ago, Newsweek's own report about Washington's pathetically troubled Mayor Marion Barry could not resist printing rumors and felt that was OK because, even while printing them, the magazine added that it didn't know if any of it was true. ("the rumors began to fly - that Barry was back on drugs, that he had been caught by the DEA (Drug Enforcement Agency) in the act of buying coke outside a restaurant . . . that he had recently tried to commit suicide. None of this could be confirmed . . . .")

We in the media often can't cover a fire without fanning the flames in the process. And that was what Boorda reportedly wrote in a suicide note to his sailors. He reportedly wrote them that wearing the "V" had been "an honest mistake" - but he feared the media and Navy critics would blow it out of proportion.

On that Boorda may have had a point. And it is about time that we in the media take a new, clear-eyed look at how we do our reporting and how we present the results to the public.

Newsweek seems to have done its job properly and responsibly in the case of Boorda. It was virtually handed the story by a small outfit, the National Security News Service, which had obtained the documentary background from the Pentagon almost a year ago in a Freedom of Information Act request.

Newsweek had to make a basic decision: Check it out or ignore it. Clearly, this report shouldn't be ignored; it could lead to a much larger story. So News-week moved to verify the facts and get the admiral's explanation.

Perhaps Boorda would have explained convincingly that the initial decision to affix the "V" medals to his ribbons was simply a mistake. Perhaps Newsweek's editors would have judged it no story - or a small story, but not an expose. Perhaps, perhaps.

But, we must also admit, perhaps the story, once properly reported, would have indeed been blown out of proportion, if not in the initial account, then by others who recycled the news. Moderation, it seems, is not exactly a media virtue these days.

Which brings us to the subject of virtue in the media. It is not an oxymoron; then again, it is not an automatic inheritance. We in journalism are proud to a fault of our own medals and ribbons (as in the lifetime title: "Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter . . . "). That leads us to often overplay - and almost never understate - our own modest scoops.

"Virtue," of course, should be its own reward. But in today's wars of media and politics, too few combatants seem to be earning that prized "V" pin.