If it weren't for television, dozens of "non-happenings" in the gulf war would remain that way, greatly improving the mental health of much of the viewing world.

Never in history have so few disseminated so much misinformation as the three major networks and CNN conduct their own all-out war for ratings.One can only imagine that Saddam Hussein, if the television sets are still working in his bunker, is dancing with glee at the hysteria served up almost hourly in this neverending barrage of unfounded rumor, contradictory opinion, out-of-context film and utter lack of journalistic professionalism.

Was there ever a worse case of shouting "fire" in a crowded theater than the recent exercise in poison-gas histrionics?

Before the anchors were finished, most of the world thought there had been a massive gas attack on Israel and that the hospitals were laden with its victims. CNN correspondents played with their masks in almost childlike demonstrations while their anchor praised their courage.

As one who has had some firsthand knowledge of "G" gas, had there been an actual attack, the correspondents probably would have treated the audience to a far more gruesome spectacle.

Then the sirens went off again in Israel. Before one could say "false alarm," television had again distorted the actuality into more hysteria. In the good old days of war coverage this would not even have been reported.

There are a variety of reasons for all this irresponsibility. The main contributor, of course, is the effort to broadcast nothing but war news 24 hours a day. The enormous amount of material required for such an undertaking leads to repetition, the use of second- and even third-rate information and, worst of all, a steady stream of unverified and often incorrect material.

The responsible practices of slowing the process and filtering the information to make sure it is accurate go right out the window in the fierce competition between the warring networks. These bad procedures are made even worse by the fact that television is an instant medium without the cooling-off period between collecting the material and making it public that applies to newspapers.

CNN must take much of the blame for bringing this about. It is doubtful that the other networks, ABC, NBC and CBS, would be on a 24-hour configuration without the enormous competition of the all-news network, which in the past decade has become an international giant in the distribution of its product.

Probably nothing can be done to temper the excesses. But the TV pretty boys - who have suffered from their image as actors, mainly irresponsible and not very professional - should take heed.

There are those in government who would severely restrict access to public information in and out of wartime. If they succeed in damaging the First Amendment, the networks will have had a large hand in it.