After being largely shut out of Kuwait during Iraq's invasion last week, the American news media again found themselves on the outside looking in yesterday.

Reporters and photographers who sought to cover the landing of U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia were barred from accompanying military personnel by the Pentagon, which said it was honoring a Saudi request to keep the media at bay.

Thus the beginnings of the largest U.S. military operation in the Middle East in three decades went unseen and unheard by the American public. Instead, TV screens were filled with the talking heads of government leaders and diplomats, file shots of U.S. and Iraqi hardware and troops, and CBS anchor Dan Rather in his jungle-safari foreign-correspondent shirt.

During the "CBS Evening News" last night, Rather took every occasion to remind viewers he was broadcasting "live and direct from the Middle East." He had cut short a vacation in France last week to station himself at a hotel in Amman, Jordan. Peter Jennings of ABC and Tom Brokaw of NBC remained in New York. One NBC News official yesterday joked that the only action Rather has seen in Jordan is a fight between housekeeping and room service at the Intercontinental Hotel. "He's just watching Jordanian TV," said the NBC executive, "and we can do that from here."

The networks as usual quibbled over which one first broke news about developments in the Middle East. With access so limited, the scoops, in fact, were rare, but CBS did produce one prominent gaffe. Washington correspondent Lesley Stahl, at a nationally televised White House press conference, said she was "being told in my ear of a report or rumor" that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein was dead, and asked for President Bush's response. Although the report was wrong, CBS defended Stahl's question on the grounds that news sources in Europe and Jordan had reported the rumor earlier in the day.

CNN spent the day bouncing around the world: At 8:30 a.m., it carried Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's speech, switched to Washington for President Bush's statement at 9, picked up Iraqi television's coverage of a statement by Saddam at 10:30, and at 2 was in Amman, for King Hussein's press conference.

In explaining the media's unwelcome status in Saudi Arabia, Defense Secretary Richard Cheney said the Saudis "have their own rules and regulations and requirements and they establish the ground rules under which people have access to cover activities inside the kingdom. That's not something that we have control over."

Most media executives accepted Cheney's explanation, taking the news half in stride, half in frustration. "We've got our people in Cairo, in Jordan, in Tel Aviv and around the gulf, but we don't have them in the three places we want to be -- in Iraq, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia," said Steve Friedman, the executive producer of "NBC Nightly News." "You feel like you're on stall."

The last time the Defense Department allowed reporters to accompany the military into combat was during the invasion of Panama in December. Even by the Pentagon's account, the "press pool" arrangement worked badly: Journalists who had been given credentials to join front-line combat troops were kept far from the action by U.S. officials, who in some cases provided reporters with no more pertinent information than briefings on the building of the Panama Canal. The sequestering of reporters in Panama kept vital pieces of information from the public, such as the military's treatment of Panamanian citizens and the performance of U.S. personnel and weaponry.

Recalling that fiasco and the total blackout of the media during the United States' 1983 invasion of Grenada, some journalists suggested that the Bush administration had more to do with keeping the media out of Saudi Arabia than Cheney let on.

"I don't buy {Cheney's} rationale," said Jack Nelson, the Los Angeles Times' Washington bureau chief, "just as I don't buy the rationale that they didn't mean to lock up our pool in Panama. It was carefully orchestrated by the Defense Department to keep us from getting in and reporting the realities of what happened there. They made a big thing after Panama saying they would correct it and they haven't."

Added Philip Taubman, deputy editor of the New York Times Washington bureau: "I think it was a combination of Saudi hostility toward the media and the administration's sense that it would just as soon not have it. It's based on an instinct of the military to keep the press at a distance partially for security reasons and partially based on its past relationship."

Washington Post Managing Editor Leonard Downie Jr. said he understood the Pentagon's concerns and was focusing on getting individual reporters into Saudi Arabia and Iraq. "I'm personally not that disturbed, because the media pool worked so poorly in the past," he said. Although the media missed the arrival of the American military, Downie added, it is more important to have reporters on the scene if fighting breaks out.

The four U.S. television networks and various print journalists went directly to the Saudis and Iraqis yesterday in their efforts to gain entry. The networks, pooling their resources, dispatched Bill Headline, CNN's Washington bureau chief, to plead for access with Saudi Embassy officials in Washington.

Headline said he received no assurances from the Saudis although he was told that the networks' request would be brought to the attention of the ambassador "at the earliest opportunity." Trying to allay Saudi skepticism, Headline said he told embassy officials that "there are a lot of mysteries and misconceptions about their country that could be cleared up with better access."

Staff writer John Carmody contributed to this report.