Henry Kissinger usually has an easy time defending the indefensible on national television. But he faced some pointed questions during a recent interview with the PBS "NewsHour" about the U.S. role in bringing a military dictatorship to Chile. When his comments aired on Feb. 20, the famous American diplomat made a chilling spectacle of himself.

Nearly three years after the U.S.-backed coup that overthrew the elected socialist president Salvador Allende in September 1973 and brought Augusto Pinochet to power, Kissinger huddled with the general in Chile. A declassified memo says that Kissinger told Pinochet: "We are sympathetic with what you are trying to do here."

While interviewing Kissinger, "NewsHour" correspondent Elizabeth Farnsworth asked him point-blank about the discussion with Pinochet. "Why did you not say to him, 'You're violating human rights. You're killing people. Stop it.'?"

Kissinger replied: "First of all, human rights were not an international issue at the time, the way they have become since. That was not what diplomats and secretaries of states and presidents were saying generally to anybody in those days."

Right. Back then, we didn't know that it was wrong to kidnap people; to hold them as political prisoners; to torture them; to murder them.

Kissinger added that at the June 1976 meeting with Pinochet, "I spent half my time telling him that he should improve his human rights performance in any number of ways." But the American envoy's concern was tactical. As Farnsworth noted in her reporting: "Kissinger did bring up human rights violations, saying they were making it difficult for him to get aid for Chile from Congress."

In Chile, the victims of Kissinger's great skills numbered into the thousands; in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, into the hundreds of thousands and more. Seymour Hersh's 1983 book The Price of Power: Kissinger in the Nixon White House documented his remarkable record as a prodigious liar and prolific killer. But the most influential news outlets continued to treat Kissinger with near-reverence. In 1989, he was elected to the board of directors of CBS. The autobiography of Katharine Graham, the owner of the Washington Post Co., praises Kissinger as a dear friend and all-around wonderful person.

Kissinger is still commonly touted by news media as Dr. Statesman Emeritus. On Feb. 16 of this year, CNN interviewed him live a few hours after the United States and Britain fired missiles at sites near Baghdad. Anchor Bernard Shaw asked about the sanctions against Iraq, but neither man said anything about the human toll -- although an estimated half-million Iraqi children have died as a result of sanctions since the early 1990s. Kissinger offered his wisdom: "The United States has absolutely nothing to gain abandoning sanctions."

Today, as in the early 1970s, tactical concerns loom large in Washington's corridors of power -- and in much of the news media. On the networks, routine assumptions confine the discourse to exploring how the U.S. government can effectively get its way in the world -- not whether it has a right to do so. For the present, moral dimensions are pushed to the margins.

Napoleon observed that it's not necessary to censor the news, it's sufficient to delay the news until it no longer matters. That might be a bit of an overstatement; truthful information about the past is valuable even if it comes late. But when lives are in the balance, truth is vital sooner rather than later.

In the present tense, with foreign-policy stakes high, media professionals routinely defer to official sources. Most U.S. journalists are inclined to swallow the deceptions fed from high levels in Washington. Months or years or decades later, big news outlets may report more difficult truths. But by then, the blood has been shed.

No wonder so many high-ranking foreign policy officials are eager to visit network TV studios, especially in times of U.S. military actions. If the questions get prickly, they're apt to be of a tactical nature: Will this missile attack be effective? Will it hurt relations with allies or backfire in world opinion? Did the targets get hit?

We don't hear much fundamental questioning of top officials from the White House or State Department or Pentagon about intervention abroad. Nor do we get much assertive journalism that challenges ongoing support for repressive American allies such as Indonesia, Turkey, Israel, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. On the "NewsHour" and other major network programs, when the subject is current policies, I don't recall questions along the lines of: "You're violating human rights. You're killing people. Why don't you stop it?"

The recent superb "NewsHour" report on U.S. policies toward Chile was titled "Pursuing the Past." In truth, that's a very tough endeavor for mainstream journalists. And pursuing the present is even more difficult.

Norman Solomon is a syndicated columnist. His latest book is The Habits of Highly Deceptive Media.