THERE'S only one thing worse than 10,000 reporters covering a summit. That's 10,000 reporters not covering a summit. Especially when the summiteers say the summit is not a summit. The world will be agape when George Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev meet aboard two American and Soviet warships, wallowing in the blue Mediterranean next month. Quite where the networks will station their anchors on this occasion remains to be seen. But the furrowed Mr. Rather, the perpetually urbane Mr. Jennings, the intense Mr. Brokaw, and thousands of other print and television journalists will nevertheless spend a lot of time and their employers' money covering the event.
This is, after all, a meeting between the two most powerful leaders in the world at a time when you can hear the ice from the cold war cracking and melting all around. Alliances are changing, communism as an economic model is discredited and in decline, the countries of Eastern Europe are drifting away from Mother Russia, and the United States is trying in some perplexing ways to figure out how to respond to all this incomprehensibly rapid change.
The problem is that Mr. Bush and Mr. Gorbachev say their meeting is just an informal get-together; no agenda, no planned communiqu'e, no substantive decisions, just a little stroll around the decks, then a slump in the deck chairs with feet up on the rail as they test each other's chemistry and get to know each other.
Even without the obsessive interest of a hungry press, however, this will not wash. Public expectations are substantial. The stakes are high. Even inaction on the part of these world leaders can sway stock markets, determine public opinion, influence other leaders.
At the Reykjavik summit between Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan several years ago, we all learned the disadvantages and even dangers of an unstructured and freewheeling meeting between two leaders with immense power at their finger-tips - winging it one-on-one.
The bureaucracies on both sides can sometimes be obstructive. But they can also be constructive, channeling, directing, and offering perspectives that even presidents sometimes lack.
There is much that demands specific discussion. Central America is one topic. Nicaragua is being continually resupplied with communist weaponry and it is immaterial whether it is coming directly from the Soviet Union or whether it is coming from Cuba and the Soviets are replenishing the Cuban arsenal. The fact is that if the Soviets wanted to, they could bring Nicaragua to heel, force it to adhere to its peace agreement and its commitment to hold elections next year.
Another topic is Eastern Europe, busily disengaging itself from Moscow. Poland and Hungary are far down the road; there is major unrest in Germany, even demonstrations in hard-line Czechoslovakia. The United States wants continuation of reform. The Soviet Union wants an American commitment not to exploit the situation.
Then there is arms control. In theory, this is not supposed to come up at this chummy little get-together. But Gorbachev has consistently surprised Washington at such meetings with daring-sounding new initiatives. Bush must be ready - and ready not to be drawn into some impetuous and impulsive response.
There is nothing wrong with Mr. Bush's taking the measure of Mr. Gorbachev. But US-Soviet relations cannot be soundly based on a personal relationship between two men who happen presently to lead their countries.
On matters such as arms control, for example, the treaties to be negotiated must be made Gorbachev-proof and Bush-proof; they must be made to last for the long haul and to be binding on successors to the two men.
That is why there must be some planning, some structure, for next month's summit. The fate of the US-Soviet relationship, and its impact on the rest of the world, is too important to be decided by whim, hunch, or intuition at a brief ``informal'' mid-ocean meeting.