It's one thing for a tawdry tabloid to publicize the name of a rape victim. It's quite another when the mainline national media do.

Last week NBC and the New York Times and other dailies went public with the name of the potential complaining witness in the William Kennedy Smith rape case, following the lead of the supermarket tabloid Globe and London's irreverent Mirror (which also used her photo). That relit last year's most volatile media ethical issue: whether alleged rape victims should ever be named in the press. The debate has swept through like a prairie fire, and the media again have become a central part of the story.Most media, including ours in Salt Lake City, have not used the name of the "29-year-old mother" who claims she was raped by Smith at the Kennedy estate in Palm Beach, Fla., nor apparently seen any need to. But a great many have carried stories about the press role. USA Today devoted a third of page one and two other pages to it; news shows like the "MacNeil/Lehrer Newshour" and "Nightline" as well as gossipy ones like "Entertainment Tonight" paid it generous attention.

The tabloid New York Daily News gave the front page over to the question, "Was NBC Right?" together with a reader phone-in poll and a picture of Tom Brokaw, on the TV screen. I haven't seen the result of that poll, but in a similar one in USA Today, 61 percent of the callers said victims should give consent before being identified and 31 percent said names should never be made public.

- UNTIL RECENTLY rape victims were never or almost never named unless slain. Some editors and reporters have argued that a policy of silence compounds a stigma and keeps us from recognizing rape as a crime of violence rather than passion. Furthermore, they say it is at variance with the American system of open courts and fair treatment for all parties, including the accused, who is almost always named. Others argue the contrary, that as long as there is an undeniable stigma victims fearful of exposure will just not report rape. The editor of the Des Moines Register, Geneva Overholser, opted to run the name after NBC News did, saying that "the obsessive focusing on this one woman is deplorable and a sign that we in the media are thoroughly confused."

This month the Register won a Pulitzer Prize in public service for a five-part series last year about a rape victim who came out of the closet to relate her experiences (Media Monitor, April 9, 1990). Increasingly, media are asking if they shouldn't use the victim's name when she asks or consents to its use. Florida has a 1911 law against revealing names of rape victims. It is unlikely to withstand a U.S. Supreme Court test, but the state attorney general was making noises last week about possibilities of prosecuting NBC and others who used the name.

- THESE ARE INTERESTING, complex and legitimate questions, but they aren't the ones the Times said it asked of itself before running the woman's name. In an accompanying box, the editors said they publicized it because NBC gave it national publicity, thus "took the matter out of [ourT editors' hands."

What nonsense. In a free society, the issue is never taken out of the editors' hands. The fact that everyone else is doing it has never stood up as an acceptable excuse for cutting corners. Why didn't the editors just say no?

Moreover, they not only used the name but a lengthy (1,500 words) leering profile of the woman, a heavy investment of space for a non-story. Smith hasn't even been charged. And he is one of the lesser Kennedys. The story is really the media mania on the Kennedy myth, and thirst for celebrity news because of peripheral involvement of Ted Kennedy.

NBC was even more sanctimonious. NBC News president Michael Gartner said that because rape is rarely a national story, NBC does not have to confront the issue much and has never before used a rape victim's name, but "we believe in this case as in all news events the more we tell our viewers the better informed they will be in making up their own minds. That is why we named Mr. Smith as the alleged attacker in the first place."

About what are we supposed to be making up our minds? Certainly not Smith's guilt, which will be decided in the courts, if the case gets that far. Gartner also said the identity was revealed because the woman is well-known in Palm Beach. That is a better reason for keeping her identity confidential.

MUCH MORE IS OPERATING here, then, than whether or when rape victims should be identified. It is how the serious press is succumbing to the temptation to deal in titillation and gossip.

A certain amount of soft news and pure entertainment is necessary to leaven the daily travail that makes up so much of the typical newspaper page or broadcast. But at a price.

The Times carried the best story I have seen on the shortcomings of the investigative techniques used by Kitty Kelley to put together her "unauthorized biography" of Nancy Reagan. But it also carried the longest newspaper story I've seen on the allegations in the gossipy volume, and even started the piece on the front page of the Sunday edition.

Playing up cotton-candy celebrity stories not only changes the tone of the paper but also drives out more important news.

We do know that the typical "newshole," the news space, which fluctuates with advertising volume, is shrinking in today's declining ad market. We also know that at least one important kind of news, international news, is getting less and less play. In one study done before the gulf war, foreign news was down from an average of 10 percent of the available space in 1972 to just over 2 percent in the major newspapers of record like the Times.

Haynes Johnson of the Washington Post made a most trenchant observation about Washington's and the media's diversions with high level scandal. He wondered what might have happened in the S&L crisis had the media paid as much attention as it now is lavishing on tales of lust among the mighty.

Milton Hollstein is a professor of communication at the University of Utah.