The media ought to meditate on the motto inscribed on the front of theNational Archives: "The past is prologue." They tend to forget everything more than two days past. I can remember President Kennedy's warning on international diplomacy: "Consultation does not always provide unanimity at the end." But there's no sign they had that caution in mind when they flocked to Reykjavik in early October.
They went there in droves to cover a weekend of talks between President Reagan and Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev. And when two days of conversation didn't provide universal peace and brotherhood, newspapers such as the Washington Post ran headlines that were the moral equivalent of banging themselves irascibly on the forehead with their tiny spoons: "Reagan- Gorbachev Summit Talks Collapse As Deadlock on SDI Wipes Out Other Gains," and, just below that whopper, "SDI Dream Beat Out Arms Control."How did the media get suckered so thoroughly by the Russian bait our president refused to nibble? After all, there weren't ever any "other gains" - as the Post so headlined them - to be "wiped out." Everything the Soviets offered at Reykjavik had a hidden catch to it, and that catch was the surrender of something we'd said - in advance - that we wouldn't surrender.
So the Soviets must have known they weren't permitting any "gains" at all: They were spreading, no doubt with malicious amusement, a banquet to which no one would ever win a ticket of admission.
But the press is too naive to deal with such elementary cunning. For one thing, the media doesn't know much about negotiating, not even the modicum President Kennedy was trying to teach in the passage cited, namely, that negotiation is not an event but a process, and that its product is rarely unanimity but simply a more precise understanding of the other party's needs and wants.
If President Reagan had succumbed to U.S. media pressure and treated Reykjavik as an event that had to be won, his signature on any sort of lousy deal would have sufficed to make him a hero in U.S. headlines. Instead of talking about a "collapse," the Post might have asked the president to pose with an umbrella and bannered: "It's Peace in Our Time!"
And that sort of big story syndrome isn't the result of naivete alone. It also has roots in the media's demand for a big return on any big investment. Hundreds of reporters and their support personnel trotted off merrily to Iceland, and with the expense meter running up some large numbers, there had to be a blockbuster result: success or failure, it didn't matter which - but nothing less.
Which brings up their sorest, most egregious failure at Reykjavik, and that is the media's misunderstanding about the substance of the talks. They run reams of copy about President Reagan's plans for a missile-defense system called the Strategic Defense Initiative, or SDI (sometimes called Star Wars and often by people who should know better), and further turgid reams about the bargaining in Geneva over the medium-range nuclear missiles (called INF in arms-control shorthand) that have been deployed in Europe by both the Russians and ourselves.
But the media must not be reading their own copy because they didn't even notice when the Russians at Reykjavik - as British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher so neatly put it - moved the goalposts.
There is little obvious connection between SDI and INF in the technological sense, though some Europeans have expressed hope for an SDI that could operate against Soviet missiles targeted on Europe, and we must rate that as at least a possibility. But intermediate-range nuclear forces are already in place in Europe on both sides, and most authorities on arms-control see no legitimate reason for the Soviets to link progress on SDI to reductions in INF.
The West's investment in INFs is intended to put the fear of God into the Soviets about any covert tendencies toward launching a Russian blitzkrieg with conventional arms in the European theater.
Many Europeans are afraid the Americans will bargain away the INF and leave the continent vulnerable to the massive and brutal power of the Red Army. They point out that the argument over the feasibility and value of the Strategic Defense Initiative has nothing to do with their present need of the INF. They know that. President Reagan knows that. Margaret Thatcher knows that. But somehow it has escaped the U.S. media, which wants instead to play ''Let's Make a Deal."
We're lucky that the U.S. public knows more about negotiation - and the proper way to play high-stakes international poker - than the press does. They knew the president was right to walk away from the table and a bad deal at Reykjavik. Nobody had to tell them so.
But who's going to convey that wisdom to the media? Perhaps we should all take a journalist to lunch and explain the way the world works.