The three tanks rumble across Saudi Arabia's desert dunes in battle formation, spitting clouds of sand and black diesel smoke in their wake.

But whoa there! Stop the war! The tanks are roaring in the wrong direction. The network camera crew on the far dune is waving frantically.

Army field commander to tank crew: "Bulldog, go chase the camel. The camera desires a picture of the palm trees and the camel."

One clumsy Sheridan tank bears left. The camera team flails its arms again, pointing in the opposite direction. The field commander shakes his head.

The lofty view of the journalistic shock troops that have descended on Saudi Arabia is that they are conducting a searching examination of the American war machine as it gears up to defend a desert kingdom in the world's most volatile region.

Privately, however, some reporters have begun describing their mission as little more than watching tired soldiers "change the oil" or "dig foxholes" or complain about the heat. While some keep signing up for the military's daily "field trips," others slip away for yet another feature on an outdoor camel market or the plight of veiled Saudi women in an ultraconservative society.

In the weeks since the initial war fever faded, there has been little hot news out of Saudi Arabia, despite the magnifying presence of 425 Western reporters and technicians, all of whom have invaded the kingdom in search of that exclusive interview or perfect Lawrence of Arabia photo op. An estimated 5,000 other journalists are seeking Saudi visas for an assignment that Ed Turner, vice president for news at Cable News Network, characterizes as "near-beer."

"How much is too much?" says Turner, whose network has a 12-person contingent in Saudi Arabia. "It's 135 degrees, your camera parts are melting and you're paying $3,500 a week to keep each person there. Because they're there you want them to do stories. And are the stories quite worth the time? There's a certain sameness that begins to develop."

The stories have clearly found an audience, particularly with the reserve call-up touching virtually every community. But while 63 percent of the public is closely following events in the Persian Gulf, according to a new survey by the Times Mirror Center for the People and the Press, 15 percent volunteered without being asked that there has been too much news about the crisis.

"It's not a measure of people saying we're tired of the story, but that they think this is really an over-covered story," says Andrew Kohut, the center's director of surveys.

Any discussion of journalistic deployment levels in Saudi Arabia quickly turns to the question of What Might Happen Next. Making the wrong choice -- and being frozen out of a shooting war -- is every editor's nightmare.

For most of the period since Iraq's Aug. 2 invasion of Kuwait, the Washington Post, New York Times and Wall Street Journal have each had two reporters in Saudi Arabia; the Los Angeles Times has had three and the Associated Press four.

"You've got to keep people there in case something happens," says Jack Nelson, Washington bureau chief of the Los Angeles Times. "You could have a war break out at any time. Some people seem to think we could attack by mid-October."

Optional Excursions Most news organizations have set up shop in the air-conditioned hotels in Dhahran, a gritty, industrial city in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia, near the Kuwaiti border and most of the U.S. military encampments.

First stop for all media representatives is the Joint Information Bureau, a makeshift public affairs shop in the back corner of a massive hotel ballroom. A small cadre of dog-tired, overworked public affairs officers is charged with marrying the media and the military.

By now, they've heard it all. A Japanese television crew asked to see the Navy's new stealth ship. "Tell them it's been right off the coast all week -- haven't they seen it?" retorted Navy Lt. Cmdr. Dave Barron.

Or how about the request from "The Joan Rivers Show," which planned to dedicate a week of episodes to the troops serving in the Middle East? "One of the segments that we are interested in doing is to highlight someone who gave up the most important day of their life, their wedding day, to serve our country," wrote Associate Producer Adora English. "The New York public affairs office seems to think that it would be possible to marry a couple via satellite. This would be ideal."

Eyes roll to the ceiling.

Navy Capt. Michael Sherman was uprooted from his coveted job as the Navy's liaison to the Hollywood motion picture industry to work 20 hours a day organizing media tours in the desert. He can thank his parents, who raised him in Saudi Arabia where they worked for Aramco, the state-run oil company. It gave him instant credentials for Operation Desert Shield.

"I'm just a travel agent," he cracks.

And there is a wide variety of package tours. For the early risers, there's "Breakfast at Tiffany's," a 5:30 a.m. excursion to the mobile field kitchen on the edge of an air base runway. It's one of the few diners in Saudi Arabia (where Islamic tradition prohibits pork) that serves up bacon with your morning eggs.

Here, aircraft mechanics, missilemen and others who've been working all night drip sweat onto their heaping plates of cholesterol as the sun rises over nearby F-15 fighter jet bunkers. Even though the thermometer has only hit 104, they barely have the energy to eat, much less be interviewed by groggy reporters.

Late sleepers can apply for a spot on the "Sluggo Tour," which makes the rounds at the bustling flight line where mammoth military transports disgorge troops and equipment around the clock.

A popular stop on the tour is "Bedrock," the dusty tent village that hundreds of Air Force medical personnel and other troops call home. It has its own town square with a post office, a financial tent, a recreation tent and "Dino's Diner," where the blue plate special on one recent day was shrimp jambalaya.

"Don't try it," whispered one Bedrocker.

Focusing on the Mundane In the absence of military conflict, much of the coverage has produced such headlines as "On Patrol in the Desert, Marines Fight Boredom" (New York Times); "For Marines, Lots of Sand but Too Few Bags" (Washington Post); "Can Saudis' Old Ways Survive?" (Los Angeles Times); and "The Saudis Find Relief and a Cause for Worry in U.S. Troops' Arrival" (Wall Street Journal).

Dusty stories about dusty troops have focused on such details as shortages of soap and razors, daily rations of three sodas and five Q-Tips, and the need to switch to a different kind of motor oil. One New York Times reporter wrote that he regaled soldiers with the latest sports scores and dropped oatmeal cookies into the turret of an M-1 tank.

While many pieces fall into predictable categories -- the daily military field trips, briefings by Saudi ministers and visiting U.S. officials -- some journalists have brought more sophistication to what is obviously a difficult assignment. Veteran Middle East correspondents, who have never before had such access to Saudi Arabia, have been able to assemble revealing pieces about an extraordinarily closed society in which alcohol consumption is punishable by flogging and adultery by stoning.

David Ignatius, foreign editor of The Washington Post, says that "we've now run out of all the easy initial stories. I've read in some newspapers three times how hot it is, how boring it is to be in Saudi Arabia ... trudging around with the grunts. There's been a whiny quality to some stories. These stories clearly are written by people who aren't very happy being there."

Philip Taubman, deputy Washington bureau chief of the New York Times, says he does not find the stories duplicative. In any event, he says, Saudi authorities apparently plan to cut each news organization back to one reporter.

"In the initial phase of deployment you're going to get a lot of stories about troops and boredom and digging in and heat, but almost all of those have told us something interesting and important about the deployment and how difficult it is and the morale of the troops," Taubman says.

He also points to "stories about the increasingly offensive nature of the American military deployment, which you could not get in Washington. There's been an effort to quickly push on beyond the feature stories."

Ignatius also sees value in what military reporters call "hardware" stories. "This is an incredible opportunity to see the most advanced military force that's ever been put in place anywhere on the planet," he says. "I've never known the American military to be so open. Whatever you want to see, they're ready to take you. It's obvious that a part of what's going on is lobbying. This is a military under pressure and it's trying to show what it can do."

Others say their access is greatly restricted, except perhaps when big-name anchors are passing through. "A lot of us who came in after the first week ended up doing the same stories the pool had done," says Hearst Newspapers reporter Stuart Powell, who recently returned home from Saudi Arabia. "I found there were not a lot of original stories."

The biggest problem with the military's field trips is that there aren't enough to feed the hungry media hordes. Only a handful of reporters and a couple of camera crews can squeeze onto most trips because of space limitations on the helicopters and vans needed to ferry journalists to distant outposts. The sign-up lists are now weeks long, leaving many Fourth Estate types grousing that they're spending too much time in hotel ballrooms and too little time in the desert.

The Overnighter The most sought-after tours in Dhahran are the overnight desert trips where reporters can sample the lifestyle of the average American soldier. The accommodations include a cot under the stars and a latrine on the backside of a sand ridge. Bring your own blanket and toilet paper.

Dinner is an MRE -- a plastic-packaged Meal-Ready-to-Eat, the modern replacement for the C-ration. Particular favorites include franks with bean component, dehydrated beef patties and ham with scalloped potatoes. But it is these nights, sitting in darkened tents or squatting on the edge of a freshly dug foxhole, when troops are most likely to offer the most valuable insights into the massive military operation.

As one group of journalists headed back to its cluster of cots, a soldier warned: "Don't put on your shoes in the morning without checking for scorpions."

Pleasant dreams.

After-Hours Diversions As U.S. military forces begin moving into their desert positions, officials are starting to make plans for coverage in case war breaks out. They are ordering flak jackets and chemical protection masks and suits for journalists. Still, they have not figured out how to get reporters and camera crews to the front lines.

For now, media people continue to share hotel space with large clans of Kuwaiti refugees and their bored, unruly youngsters who race through the hallways late into the night. There are not many extracurricular activities to fill a reporter's spare hours when all the seats on the tour bus have been taken.

For one thing, there are no bars. The closest thing to a good time is a pitcher of Saudi champagne -- a bubbly concoction of Perrier and apple juice.

"I'm so dry I'm a fire hazard," says Lt. Col. Larry Icenogle, an Army public affairs officer.

Women journalists in particular are handicapped by the ancient rituals of Saudi life. While their male counterparts routinely rent cars, the women must hire drivers to ferry them around for interviews because Saudi law bars women from driving. Despite the oppressive heat, they must wear long skirts and long sleeves or risk disapproving stares from male passersby.

With few diversions -- although the military did manage to broadcast parts of the U.S. Open on a large-screen television -- correspondents find themselves working around the clock, a practice accentuated by the seven-hour time difference.

"You could go all day local time, get back to your hotel at 8 p.m. and sit there and write stories as late as 2 a.m., then go to sleep and get up and do it all again," says Hearst's Powell.

Not that anyone is complaining. Turner says his son, CNN producer Chris Turner, has remained in Saudi Arabia since arriving with the first pool. "You couldn't take him off the story with a hand grenade," he says.

And that, says Steve Friedman, executive producer of "NBC Nightly News," may help explain why there is no shortage of news from Saudi Arabia.

"Where you have your resources is where you get your stuff," he says. "It's like covering a political campaign. If you put a lot of muscle in the gulf, you're going to get a lot of gulf stories."

Molly Moore reported from Dhahran, Saudi Arabia; Howard Kurtz reported from Washington.