Not a single American shot has been fired in Middle East combat, and already press and television coverage of the Persian Gulf crisis has provoked a storm of criticism.

The critiques, coming as they do from wildly different political perspectives, frequently contradict each other. Journalists, say some, have become virtual warmongers and cheerleaders for the Bush administration's policy. Journalists, say others, have willingly served as mouthpieces for Iraqi propaganda and have reached out for obscure critics of American policy because mainstream politicians are so united in support. Often the two sides are talking about the same journalists.

You can find evidence for both assertions. Tabloid headlines like "UP YOURS," "IRAQ VOWS TO GAS YANKS" and "BULLY OF BAGHDAD" feed fears that American journalism is whipping up war frenzy. The regular television appearances of Iraqi officials dressed like the average American senator -- or better -- create alarm that Americans are letting their adversaries dominate the airwaves.

But the debate over the press coverage may be particularly fierce because it's very nearly the only debate in town. In the absence of widespread dissent over the conflict itself, the usual political divisions are manifesting themselves in fights over who's covering what well.

The debate is actually raising some interesting questions. For example: To what extent is the coverage influenced by the longing of reporters, especially those based in Washington, for a big story involving American leadership after a period when the United States seemed to be playing a marginal world role? In their relief at having a big story, do reporters end up showing untoward enthusiasm for American policy?

Should reporters abandon an ideal of evenhandedness when a foreign dictator threatens American interests? Or does relatively evenhanded coverage, even of conflicts involving brutal dictators, improve the domestic debate? Do dictators, because of their ability to control access so tightly, get a better break in the American media than leaders of democratic countries, including the United States?

Robert Lichter, co-director of the Center for Media and Public Affairs, argues that the two extreme critiques -- that journalists have served as apologists for the administration or as funnels for Saddam's propaganda -- "are both wrong."

But it's been easy for partisans to find support for their widely divergent criticisms of gulf reportage simply because there has been so much of it. Lichter, whose organization closely monitors the content of television news programs, said that the conflict with Iraq had been covered three times as heavily as the Panama invasion, and twice as heavily as both the closing weeks of the 1988 presidential campaign and the breaking stages of the Iran-contra scandal.

Few dispute the importance of the crisis or the fact that it deserves a lot of attention. There certainly seems to be a popular demand: Since the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait began, viewing of news programs and sales of newspapers have risen sharply. For July 30 to Aug. 26, Cable News Network reported that it received its highest average rating in its 10-year history.

But some students of the media argue that the coverage reflects what Todd Gitlin, director of the mass communications program at the University of California at Berkeley, said is reporters' "sense of relief" at having a large story to cover in which Washington's role was central.

"After the end of the Cold War, it was hard to know where the center of action was," Gitlin said. "Now, whether the U.S. power is really increasing or declining, Washington is clearly where a lot of the action is. And people who cover Washington like that. The number of actors involved is relatively small, and there's a sense of excitement at being around them and covering them. There's the adrenaline of the action itself: Big things are at stake, life-and-death decisions."

Gitlin also argued that reporters sometimes fell into the role of "armchair generals" in their identification with American policy and that enthusiastic television reports of the American military's power and potential "sometimes made the coverage look like a trailer for 'Top Gun.' "

Richard Cohen, a former CBS senior producer, saw the crisis as "a wonderful opportunity for the networks to get out there, to sell themselves, to have great footage and great backdrops for their anchor."

"Whose interests are being served?" asked Cohen, who is executive producer of "Spike," a program of press criticism now in the pilot stage. "The press is serving itself." Cohen believes that all the action created a sense of urgency about the crisis, which in turn helped President Bush sell his policy and improve his popular standing.

Virtually everyone agrees that one person whose popular standing has been hurt is Saddam Hussein -- the Hitler metaphor is everywhere.

The slamming of Saddam has brought praise to journalists from some unlikely quarters. "In general, I'd say that the media's coverage of Iraq is better than of other conflicts, like Panama, Nicaragua or Grenada," said L. Brent Bozell III, chairman of the Media Research Center, a conservative group that is normally scathing in criticizing what it sees as liberal bias in the media. "Nobody likes Hussein," he said. This, he added, represented a journalistic bias -- but one he happened to agree with.

Nonetheless, conservatives like Bozell are unhappy with Saddam's access to American television. Bozell asked: "Does there have to be another side?"

Bozell's questions reflect the thrust of at least one stream of conservative criticism that is thoroughly at odds with prevailing journalistic norms. The problem with the coverage, these conservatives say, is not that it has been unfair, but that it has been too concerned with letting Saddam tell his side of the story.

Ted Smith, associate professor of mass communications at Virginia Commonwealth University and a specialist on propaganda, said modern journalism's insistence "that there are two sides to every issue can mean that you're giving truth and lies equal opportunity to be heard."

Smith argues that journalism's approach to international conflicts has changed profoundly since the Vietnam War era. "What has changed is a complete redefinition of the role of journalists," he said. "They now see themselves as autonomous, neutral critics {who are} not of the culture but somehow outside the culture and above it," he said. "They now see themselves not as servants of American democracy, but as servants of the truth in some wider sense."

Smith particularly objects to what he sees as American television's willingness to "allow despots to control information in a way we wouldn't conceivably give our own leaders."

"The rules of the game are different" for the dictators, Smith said. "They are never subjected to the same standard."

Most journalists agree that coverage of the U.S. government's approach to foreign policy has become tougher since the Vietnam era -- but they count this as a positive development. They also agree that the world of global television and instantaneous satellite communication has made it much more likely that Americans will be exposed to the personalities and viewpoints of America's adversaries. "If we had had the technology back then, you would have seen Eva Braun on the 'Donahue' show and Hitler on 'Meet the Press,' " said Ed Turner, executive vice president of CNN.

But Turner and other practitioners of the post-Vietnam, satellite approach to news coverage say that giving Americans more information, even if that includes giving "face time" to ruthless despots, helps the policy debate and thus the nation.

"If we have a country less driven by a hatred of this individual and a cooler, rational understanding of the situation, then we may understand what kind of unhappy outcome that person has in mind and what's to be done about it," Turner said.

Joe Peyronnin, vice president of CBS News -- which is still savoring Dan Rather's coup of getting the first American interview with Saddam -- said he was thoroughly comfortable with what the network did.

"I have no concern about interviewing quote the enemy unquote because I want that side of the story," said Peyronnin, punctuating his own sentence.

And he said that other than accepting the condition that the Iraqi government film the interview, the network made no unusual concessions to Saddam. "Dan Rather was alone," he said. "He had a notebook and pen. He was surrounded by the Iraqi army. I think he did an exceptional job asking tough questions."

Lichter argued that the extensive coverage given the Iraqi leader resulted in part from the relative shortage of domestic dissent on Bush's policies. "There're embarrassed that they don't have much criticism to report," Lichter said of journalists.

But the lack of opposition among mainstream politicians has been a boon to the outriders of American politics, dissenters whose views are often buried under more conventional opinion but are now eagerly sought out by journalists and the editors of op-ed pages seeking some alternative to a pro-administration argument.

The scholars at the libertarian Cato Institute, which opposes government meddling whether in the economy or abroad, came out early and strongly against Bush's decision to send troops to Saudi Arabia. As a result, their opinions have appeared in 82 separate radio, television and newspaper outlets since the beginning of the crisis.

Gitlin said he saw the press's search for dissent as a healthy development. "I don't think it's the press's obligation to invent dissent," he said. "But it is the press's function to raise debates." That includes debates over how the press does its job.