The spot begins with a black-and-white photo of the emir of Kuwait. Dissolve to color shots of flag-draped coffins being carried onto Dover Air Force Base.

"The emir is waiting for Americans to go to war. ... Don't send our husbands, wives and our children to their deaths for this man and his oil," an announcer says.

That 30-second commercial, paid for by the Military Families Support Network, an organization of people with relatives serving in the Persian Gulf, has been turned down by the three network-owned stations in Washington and by Cable News Network. And that has infuriated Alex Molnar, a University of Wisconsin professor with a 21-year-old son in Saudi Arabia, who founded the group after his open letter to President Bush was published as an op-ed piece in the New York Times.

The Kuwaiti government, he says, "is buying millions of dollars of television and radio time to tell American parents their children should die for Kuwait. In the face of this Goliath, a group of family members scrapes together enough money to do a commercial, and we get turned down. ... It's kind of hard to swallow."

At least two of the stations have run spots supporting Bush administration policy against Iraq.

Bob Casazza, a WJLA-TV (Channel 7) vice president, says he felt the ad was "exploitive and sensationalizing" and that the sponsors "cannot substantiate the claim of the ad" on the reasons for going to war. Casazza says he asked for changes but that a revised version was still "in questionable taste."

Allan Horlick, general manager of WRC-TV, Channel 4, says the commercial "served to heighten the emotional agenda" and "does not add to the community's dialogue on this very important issue." He says WRC will deal with the Persian Gulf through "ongoing news reports that present all sides of the story."

WUSA-TV Vice President Sandra Butler-Jones says Channel 9 is rejecting all Persian Gulf ads because the issue "can best be explored in our news and information programming." CNN spokesman Steve Haworth says his network also is refusing such ads because it has virtually 24-hour coverage of the Persian Gulf crisis and "it becomes very difficult for the viewer to distinguish the news package from an advocacy ad."

Newspapers have been peppered with ads on both sides of the gulf issue, from church leaders to union presidents to the Linus Pauling Institute to the Committee for America at Risk, a group of Northern Virginia conservatives. The military families say they feel left out.

"We're the people who have the most to lose if our loved ones don't come back, or come back maimed and damaged," says Sally Tom, a local volunteer whose brother was sent to Saudi Arabia a week ago. "These stations should let the voice of the people come out."

Molnar says that not only can he not get his commercial aired, but the Sunday morning talk shows are not interested in interviewing family members. "They have the same people on week after week, Washington insiders congratulating each other about how smart they are. It's kind of insulting." But in the wake of the controversy yesterday, Molnar made it onto the "Today" show and will be on Jesse Jackson's show tomorrow.

The 'Battle Plan'

Frank Magid Associates, the consulting firm that helped invent the "eyewitness news" concept, has some advice for its television clients if war breaks out in the Persian Gulf:

"You have to get out and OWN that story in the first 24 hours. Do that, and the viewers are yours to lose," the company says in a computerized memo to clients in more than 100 local markets, including WRC-TV here.

"Reactions from family members of soldiers are a must. ... Try to have a photograph of every soldier now in the Mideast. ... Have an advisory list of experts ready to go. ... Be ready to contact your senators and representatives."

Sound obvious? There's more: "Americans do not accept death well. ... How will we handle it if reports that thousands of America'syoung people are dying start coming in?"

And: "Network schedules will change. 'Uncle Buck' will not air if we have bombers over Baghdad. Your sales department needs a battle plan."

Finally, this admonition: "Our troops say they're ready to go. Are you? When/if war breaks out, it could be the biggest story in history."

David Smith, Magid's manager of television consultation, says much of the advice -- such as planning to wake the news anchor if war breaks out at 2 a.m. -- was aimed mainly at smaller stations. "I'm not sure our ideas were meant to be anything more than a framework. ... Some of it could seem pedestrian, but we never assume the obvious," he says.

"WRC, in the national capital, would approach it very differently than our client in Pocatello, Idaho. We have clients with 8, 10, 12 people, including the anchor people and people who are in their first jobs. ... Our main goal was {to say}, 'Folks, don't get caught here without a plan.' "

Kris Ostrowski, WRC's news director, says she hasn't read the Magid blueprint but "we're really far ahead of that." She says the station has a detailed "war plan," adding: "We want to do local, hard-hitting news about where our troops are. We've got our list of experts. We're looking seriously at the possibility that Washington could be a target for terrorist attacks."

This Just In

"War Would Pre-Empt Regular Shows" -- headline in yesterday's USA Today.

Missing the King Story

The Wall Street Journal scored a front-page coup in November with the news that Martin Luther King Jr. had plagiarized parts of his doctoral dissertation. Now comes the New Republic to say that the information had been available for a year and that major news organizations -- The Washington Post, the New York Times, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and the New Republic itself -- could have had the story much earlier.

For one thing, the Sunday Telegraph of London had reported the plagiarism allegations in December 1989, and reports by two right-wing U.S. publications followed. And there were widespread rumors that Clayborne Carson, the Stanford historian directing the King Papers Project, had come across evidence of plagiarism.

"We just screwed up," says Washington Post reporter Dan Balz. Hesays the rumors prompted him to call Carson last spring, but that Carson "misled" him by saying he was still examining whether King had borrowed from other writers' work.

"This is a story we clearly would have liked to have had first," Balz says. But he adds: "This is potentially a murky area. You have to be able to look at the text and compare it. We did not know what constituted the plagiarism. ... We did not have credible evidence."

Says Carson: "We had made a decision to report our findings through a scholarly publication. I know that journalists think the pages of their newspaper are the best place to put breaking news, but scholars don't believe that. He was trying to initiate a controversy. ... There were just two different objectives there."

Carson says he told Balz he would be "the first to know" when the research was complete and that he would warn Balz if another reporter came knocking. Balz made other efforts to nail down the story, but got distracted when he was switched to the White House beat.

Carson says he later got a call from Wall Street Journal reporter Peter Waldman, who told him he had the Boston University dissertation from which King had lifted large passages and was ready to run a story, with or without Carson's help. The earlier deal with Balz "fell by the wayside," Carson says.

At the New Republic, where there was concern over the story's racial overtones, editor Hendrik Hertzberg lost time looking for a historian to pursue the story. "There was a reluctance to do it in a sensationalistic way," he says. "This certainly had every earmark of being an explosive and contentious story. It was a little like finding out that George Washington didn't chop down the cherry tree after all."