An astounding 71 percent of Americans surveyed by the Los Angeles Times in its continuing study of attitudes toward the press said that news coverage of wars ought to be "neutral," as opposed to 22 percent who said it should be "pro-American."

If that poll is accurate, it is good news for the First Amendment. It means that the U.S. public by better than 3-to-1 is grasping one of the most difficult abstractions of a democracy: that objective truth unclouded by the bias of loyalty to crown and flag cannot be sacrificed even in wartime.The Times study is incomplete but appears to be valid. The question was: "In your opinion, which is better - that news coverage of a war be pro-American or that news coverage of a war be neutral?" It was the 21st question midway on a long survey of impressions of coverage of the gulf war.

Exactly how deeply people hold this conviction ought to be explored. The director of the survey, Andrew Kohut, said he is convinced the public "genuinely values the press being objective."

Kohut said it was the first time that question had been put in the Times surveys, but he believes attitudes would have been the same during the Vietnam War.

The public, Kohut said, clearly supports the watchdog role of news organizations. It objects to our methods sometimes. The Times survey showed a heavy majority who felt military censorship in Operation Desert Storm was justified to protect U.S. troops. But the poll showed that reporting out of Baghdad, including news about collateral damage to civilian areas from American bombs, was something citizens felt they ought to have.

Half of the respondents in the Times survey felt that news organizations were careful not to give Saddam Hussein too much of a platform, while 39 percent said he got too much attention. In the South, opinion was more closely divided on that issue - 45 to 43 percent.

What did respondents mean, exactly, when they overwhelmingly called for "neutral" reporting? When allied troops rolled into Kuwait and southern Iraq, a really neutral headline would have said: "Ceasefire ordered, both sides claim victory." They surely don't want that. And it is a safe bet that they do not want the kind of equivalence that would require equal attention to the death of an Iraqi and American soldier.

What the answer probably means is that the public wants news about war in all its aspects, not just the aspects that support and favor the American position.

That, to those of us who have despaired at times that the First Amendment would be defeated in a referendum, is encouraging.

It means the public wants us to do our jobs.

It doesn't mean we have to drain the blood out of our veins.

Last Saturday night, 60 journalists at the annual Gridiron Show sang an unabashed salute to the troops of Desert Storm. Many of them were back from the gulf, where they had covered that operation, warts and all. They were a daily irritant to the brass with constant questioning and carping about censorship. They griped about restrictions on movement, delays of combat pool reports and everything else that prevented the free flow of information.

Their tribute to the troops, nonetheless, was very effective and genuine. No tiny American flags drooped from tailcoat lapels. Writers say it with words. Symbols are for politicians.

Defense Secretary Dick Cheney, afterward, seemed surprised that journalists could step out of their working clothes for a moment to express admiration for honor, duty, liberty and the men and women who practiced those values on desert and sea.