Iraq's invasion of Kuwait this week proved an axiom of journalism: Sometimes, being in the right place at the right time counts most.

As Iraqi tanks rolled through Kuwait city on Thursday, there were no television crews -- and indeed few print reporters -- on the scene. The invasion caught most media organizations by surprise. Journalists who attempted to enter Kuwait after the invasion began, including CBS News anchor Dan Rather, were turned away by Iraqi officials. (Rather, after jetting among three Middle Eastern countries yesterday, anchored his network's broadcast last night from Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, according to a CBS executive. Sources said Rather did not reveal his location on the broadcast because officials in Dubai were concerned about giving Iraq the impression it was aiding Western journalists.)

News executives cannot recall an instance in which access was so poor to so big a story. As of late yesterday afternoon, broadcast executives said they had yet to see a single piece of video footage of the invasion or its immediate aftermath.

"This story's a bitch," said Ed Turner, CNN's top news executive. "In a wired universe, where up-links and transponders are so common, here you've got a whole area of the world that's off-limits to us. We could get in the bowels of the Soviet Union for the Armenian earthquake and we could stay in {Tiananmen} square in Beijing {during unrest last year} but we can't get a frame out of there."

Turner's frustration was perhaps best symbolized by a jet that remained grounded in Frankfurt, West Germany, last night, two days after the four U.S. TV networks hired it to carry satellite relay equipment to the region. The jet was unable to take off because the Iraqis had closed airspace around Kuwait.

In the absence of footage from the scene, television journalists were forced to cover the Kuwait invasion much like radio journalists. All of the major networks carried the voices of eyewitnesses via phone links to Kuwait city. The standard visual was a map of the region.

"This was a very unusual situation," said Steve Friedman, executive producer of "NBC Nightly News." "Usually in a situation of this kind, there is some kind of TV to fall back on -- government stations or something else from the area. But no one could get in there. We were all equally hobbled."

Executives at both NBC and ABC said they did not attempt to send their anchormen into the scene, saying they were better off working the story from the United States. CBS officials, however, were crowing about Rather's excursion to the Middle East; Lane Venardos, director of special events for CBS News, said Rather was the first to report, late Thursday night, that Iraqi troops were massing on Kuwait's border with Saudi Arabia. But Rather's scoop was hard-won: The anchor flew from London on Thursday, and spent Friday hopping around from Amman, Jordan, to Bahrain to Dubai.

It apparently didn't help the media's coverage much that Iraq's actions came during peak vacation season for many reporters. The Kuwait-based correspondents for both United Press International and the Associated Press were both on vacation at the time of the Iraq attack; both wire services relied on backup stringers in Kuwait for their coverage. Rather, meanwhile, was called up from a vacation in France.

The New York Times' Cairo correspondent was in Johannesburg at the time of the invasion, filling in for the paper's vacationing reporter there, and was unable to gain access once the fighting began.

"If we had had a full complement of staff, we might have been there," said Michael Kaufman, the Times' acting foreign editor, yesterday. In its account yesterday of the invasion, the Times relied on AP's eyewitness dispatch from the scene.

Added Kaufman, "We have all been a bit spoiled by the memories of Vietnam that it is our God-given right to attend and bear witness. That's not always the case."

The Washington Post was among a handful of Western news organizations with correspondents in Kuwait. Reporter Caryle Murphy traveled to Kuwait earlier in the week as Iraqi and Kuwaiti diplomats met to defuse the growing crisis and as Iraqi President Saddam Hussein began massing troops on his country's border with Kuwait.

David Ignatius, The Post's editor for foreign news, said Hussein's unpredictability made it more likely that hostilities could break out.

Fortunately for the media, the story moved briskly beyond Kuwait with developments in Washington, Moscow, Tokyo and other world capitals and financial markets. Which brings up a new problem, at least for television: how to make diplomatic negotiations and economic repercussions visually interesting.

"The story is not much different than the budget negotiations now," said Bob Murphy, vice president of news coverage at ABC.