ONE hundred days and counting since the November 3 election, and the American news media haven't recovered their equilibrium. Like drug-starved addicts, they lurch single-mindedly from one story to the next, alternating between euphoria and depression, adoration and scorn. Witness the love-hate coverage of Mr Clinton. On election night, the President-elect was painted with a halo of sainthood, cast as the man who could walk on water and balance the budget at the same time. Then, during the first phase of a rocky transition, he was upbraided by the same journalists for his inexperience. A few weeks later the media flipped again and showered him with praise for his commanding performance at a two-day economic conference. Finally, a week before office, Mr Clinton was lambasted for breaking campaign promises and for chronic tardiness in keeping appointments. The inauguration itself was a media love-fest, the sentimental coronation of an elected king, but no sooner had cleaning crews finished sweeping up the Mall than the press skewered the new president for trying to lift the ban on homosexuals in the military and nominating a law-breaker for Attorney General. (Her crime: hiring an illegal baby-sitter.) At this point, some commentators went so far as to suggest Mr Clinton was washed up. So what's wrong with the media? Why does the collective mood swing so violently? What would inspire otherwise intelligent journalists to pronounce, with ludicrous certainty, that a fledgling administration is ''mortally wounded'', and ''irreparably damaged'' one week, and ''on the right path'' the next? First we should say what the problem isn't. With a Democrat in the White House perhaps we can finally dismiss one long-standing explanation for the media's unrelenting aggressiveness: liberal bias. There may, indeed, be a plurality of card-carrying Democrats among rank-and-file journalists (as there is among the population at large), but that does not hold for the media owners and publishers who pay their salaries. Besides, as flawed as the journalistic tribe may be, political loyalty is not among their professional sins. No, the reasons for such tomfoolery lie elsewhere. I can think of two. One is a subtle shift in the media, especially television, over the past decade towards instant commentary. True, there have always been editorialists. But a new and different breed of pundits has proliferated with alarming speed. Today's talking heads are expected not just to elucidate and explain, but to pass summary judgement. Their comments are dominated by metaphors of sports and war - who's ahead on points, who won or lost the battle. They are political scorekeepers. Television's post-modern pundits are also gladiators, pitted against peers of ostensibly opposite ideology. This pit-bull format may engage people with a short attention span, but it also forces the combatants into extreme postures and places a premium on repartee rather than insight. Finally, virtually all of the dozens of nationally recognised opinion-makers inhabiting the air waves are simultaneously working journalists. That means they have two, not always compatible jobs: describing events, and telling us how we should react to them. The second source of media mayhem is the explosion of audience-participation news programmes - aka talk-radio and talk-TV. This raises a vexing question: What is, and what is not, part of the news media? Larry King Live ? Donahue ? The Christian Broadcasting Network? The answer is not obvious, because many of the increasingly powerful call-in maestros place themselves outside ''the media'', which has become a swear-word for most Americans. Here is the point: the ''old'' news media are bent out of shape because these rabble-rousing tele-populists can whip up a political storm in Washington faster than you can dial 911. A man in Florida tells Larry King on CNN that his wife's cellular phone caused the cancer that killed her and Motorola's stock dips 20 per cent; irate citizens blast Washington on call-in programmes and Zoe Baird's nomination goes down in flames. These programmes have real clout, and are part of a sea-change in the expression of public opinion. The traditional media are trying hard to follow suit - through the extensive use of polls, by adding call-in segments to existing programmes, and by generally showing that they, too, are ''in touch''. Nor is Washington deaf to the sound of touch-tone dialling. President Clinton will host his first 90-minute televised ''town hall meeting'', tonight - just like the ones that helped him win the election - to sell his new economic package. Congressmen now routinely cite the ratio of calls and letters from constituents to justify policy positions. If the ''electronic town hall'' sounds familiar, it will come as no surprise that Ross-the-Boss Perot is again leading the call-in democracy bandwagon. His crusade is to convene a constitutional convention to force Congress to pass a balanced budget amendment. Stay tuned. Americans are slightly intoxicated with their new-found power. When they dial Washington, they expect someone at the other end to jump. Some call it tele-democracy. Others say it looks more like mobocracy - government by instant referendum - and threatens the American system of indirect representation. My own reservations are more mundane and may seem terribly anti-democratic, but frankly what most people have to say about domestic policies and foreign affairs isn't very interesting. Certainly not interesting enough to put on the evening news.