On Dec. 5, 2001, Torie Clarke was hosting a birthday puppet show for her 5-year-old and two dozen young friends when her home phone, cell and pager all went off at once.

The Pentagon spokeswoman was flooded with complaints because Marine officials at a base in Afghanistan had detained reporters and photographers in a warehouse while servicemen wounded in a friendly-fire incident were being treated 100 feet away.

"That was the wrong thing to do," Clarke says. "It goes against our guidance and our policy, and they shouldn't have done it."

As the United States continues its buildup for a possible war with Iraq, Clarke is devising plans to allow dozens of reporters to accompany military units -- and to avoid the kind of restrictions that have choked off information while driving journalists crazy.

"It's in our interest to let people see for themselves, through the news media, the lies and deceptive tactics Saddam Hussein will use," Clarke says. "He will put military assets next to civilians and blame any casualties on us. It's better if the Washington Posts of the world are telling people than us."

Clarke is setting the bar high, stressing that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Gen. Tommy Franks and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Richard Myers have personally told commanders they want cooperation with the press.

If that happens, it would represent a breakthrough in military-media relations that have been strained since the days of Vietnam. During the Gulf War, military officials sometimes blocked, delayed -- or even changed adjectives in -- stories filed by reporters under a censorship system that made both sides unhappy.

News organizations also felt stiffed by the lack of front-line access in Afghanistan. Clarke says the Pentagon did the best it could, including putting reporters on warships, but was unable to allow access to small numbers of U.S. Special Forces who were operating clandestinely.

A large-scale land war with Iraq, she says, would be different.

Clarke met last week with more than 50 bureau chiefs, some of whom praise her efforts to "embed" correspondents with the troops but object to some of the ground rules.

"They want to control it," says Janet Leissner, CBS's Washington bureau chief. "They will dole out the embedding slots, who will go where. They say once you take someone out, there's no guarantee you'll be able to replace them" -- a practice the Pentagon calls "embedding for life."

Robin Sproul, ABC's Washington bureau chief, is more upbeat: "As they've proposed it, it would really bring unprecedented levels of coverage of U.S. troops in action. This is a sea change in an effort to get us there. The intent is admirable." Still, says Sproul, "the devil is in the details."

One detail is that the Pentagon won't issue credentials to journalists whose news organizations want them to cover the conflict independently, which could increase the danger to those not traveling with military units.

Another detail is how quickly the correspondents can file their stories. Clarke says they can use their own technology, but that there may be times when satellite phones and other devices could be temporarily banned to protect troop movements. The goal, she says, is "to make sure they can get their product back in minutes and hours, not days and weeks."

Rumsfeld and company are also planning to wage a public relations war against Saddam Hussein, "the same way you try to wipe out his air defenses," Clarke says. She's working on having spokesmen available, around the clock and in the war zone, to respond to Iraq's propaganda blasts.

Such rapid responses are "just like in a campaign, when your opponent says you beat your wife," says the former top flack for George H. W. Bush's 1992 campaign. "We need to improve in that regard" with "clear, factually checkable information about how they've lied."

Sometimes, though, the military's information doesn't hold up. Last February, for example, Pentagon officials said Army forces had killed 15 Afghans and captured 27 Taliban members -- only to admit days later that the captives were not Taliban, after reporters visited the area and challenged the official account.

Clarke, for one, doesn't necessarily expect smooth sailing: "I have three pages of things that can go wrong. Someone could get killed. A journalist could screw up -- inadvertently or, less likely, deliberately -- and reveal information that puts an operation at risk. A public affairs officer could screw up and not permit the coverage that's expected and appropriate."

Unfit to Print The New York Times has killed another column.

This time it wasn't by one of the paper's sportswriters but by Jeff Barge, a Manhattan public relations executive. His piece blasted the PR industry as "a deceptive business" in which newspapers are fed "quotes that are just plain fabricated by the PR people."

Barge had been invited to write a "My Job" column for the Sunday Business section. But days before the Jan. 12 essay was to run, Times editor Brent Bowers told Barge in an e-mail that Sunday Business Editor Judith Dobrzynski "just now killed the piece. She says it is too self-promotional and didn't like the anecdotes. I totally disagree with her, and argued my case, but she is the boss."

The explanation was odd because most of the "My Job" columns are self-serving, while Barge was trashing his own profession. "I AGREE!!!!" Bowers wrote Barge after he pointed this out. "I made the same argument. That was when her jaw tightened and her face froze in an unfriendly way."

In the spiked column, Barge also boasts of press releases that spurred articles in Business Week and The Washington Post. He now accuses the Times of "a form of censorship" to spare the paper "possible embarrassment."

Times spokesman Toby Usnik says that "we canceled the piece because it was indeed too self-promotional. There is nothing wrong with divulging deceptions in any field, but this piece made claims of skulduggery, including some directed at The Washington Post, that would have needed to be independently confirmed -- an effort not permitted by available time or space."

The 'Gay' Ban When a member of the Gay and Lesbian Activists Alliance wrote a letter to the Washington Times, his reference to "gay" was changed to "homosexual."

According to the Washington magazine Metro Weekly, letters editor Matthew Rarey told Rick Rosendall in an e-mail: "Per The Times' policy against Orwellian abuse of the English language, the euphemism 'gay' is not used to describe the homosexual lifestyle."

Managing Editor Fran Coombs says that "we've used 'homosexual' for years, just like we've used 'black' for years instead of 'African American.' We're very traditionalist over here. It has absolutely nothing to do with any political feeling or slight intended."

Fox's Famous Lover The press has had a good time ridiculing Fox News over reports the network hired James Hewitt, famous for his affair with Princess Diana, to cover the possible war with Iraq. Hewitt, dubbed the "love rat" after his failed attempt to sell Diana's love letters, has zero journalistic experience.

"In the '91 war he was a tank commander for the Brits," says Fox Vice President John Moody. "He presented himself well on the air. . . . There was a certain celebrity factor."

But Fox is ditching Hewitt after Moody met with him Friday. The problem, says Moody, is that Fox envisioned him as a studio analyst while Hewitt wanted to be out in the field. Now the lawyers will have to work out Hewitt's $50,000 contract.

Pentagon spokeswoman Victoria Clarke says that in the event of an Iraq war, reporters would be given more access than they had in Afghanistan.