Walt Rodgers, the veteran CNN correspondent traveling with the Army's 7th Cavalry, is so deeply embedded that he got to ride around the desert in an Abrams tank.
"Being inside the beast isn't so bad," he said yesterday by satellite phone from Iraq. "We're getting unbelievable access. I don't believe I've ever had such access over 36 years of reporting."
The Pentagon's decision to dispatch more than 500 journalists with U.S. forces has produced a wealth of riveting television pictures and a grunt's-eye view of the war, along with occasional moments of silliness.
Viewers have seen ABC's Ted Koppel with a line of hundreds of tanks crossing the Kuwaiti border into Iraq. CBS's Julie Chen emerging nervously from a bunker after a chemical-attack alert. Fox's Oliver North recalling how he was in a lieutenant colonel's "lead bird" when a helicopter behind them crashed, killing the 12 American and British occupants. Rodgers telling Wolf Blitzer it was "no big deal" as a shell exploded nearby.
Gas-mask journalism, as it might be called, doesn't lack for excitement.
But as many of the correspondents are quick to acknowledge, their embedded existence gives them a certain tunnel vision that makes it hard to piece together whether a bit of action is a mere skirmish or an important turn in the war. And as the push toward Baghdad has begun, the reporters have increasingly cited "operational security" in declining to answer questions about where they are, where they're going or what their unit's mission is.
"I find it like salted nuts -- very tasty and almost empty of high-quality nourishment," said Alex Jones, director of Harvard's Shorenstein press center. "We're seeing dramatic pictures of racing across the desert, but I don't think that tells me anything that is really important about what's going on.
"I haven't seen any destroyed tanks. I haven't seen any dead bodies. I haven't seen any disturbing images," said Jones. From the Pentagon's point of view, "it's been one magnificent recruitment video."
Defense officials, not surprisingly, are pleased. "We are in the early stages, but so far it seems to be going well," said Pentagon spokeswoman Torie Clarke. "The American people and publics globally are getting comprehensive news and information about the military action." But given the inherent risks, she said, "we remain concerned about safety -- the forces' and the media's -- as well as operational security."
"Everyone's very much on edge," said Robin Sproul, ABC's Washington bureau chief, noting that Clarke reminded news executives in a conference call this week to have their reporters exercise caution. "When you think of all these people going live and the potential for giving out too much information, it's a scary thing."
A "very upset" military official in Washington called Sproul yesterday to complain "that one of our reporters had gone too far and said too much and violated the guidelines" in a report on plane movements. But Sproul says she reached the public information officer in the Persian Gulf, who had provided the information on the record and had no problem with it being used.
Perhaps through no fault of their own, some of the reports have taken on a boosterish tone as the embeds describe the massive weaponry. Journalists have made "shock and awe" the unofficial slogan of the war, endlessly repeating a phrase uttered earlier by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.
There are technological marvels. NBC's David Bloom, in headset and goggles, used a mobile satellite transmission platform to transmit green-tinted pictures as he rode atop a speeding truck with the 3rd Infantry Division in southern Iraq.
"As far as the eye can see, you can see the white lights of this convoy," Bloom said. "There are thousands of vehicles here . . . a formidable fighting force arrayed against the Republican Guard."
There are moments of ingenuity. When CBS's Jim Axelrod discovered his crew had lost its night-vision camera lens, he told his colleagues, "We were in the outhouse. I was contemplating ways to commit suicide." But cameraman Mario de Carvalho used some duct tape and a plastic-bag "twisty" to attach the reporter's night-vision goggles to the camera.
And there are moments of life and death. North, a former Marine and radio talk show host, said yesterday that he initially thought that his producer and cameraman were aboard the helicopter that went down Thursday. He agreed to a military request to hold off airing footage of the fiery crash until all next of kin have been notified. He also gave authorities a copy of the tape for their investigation.
"The working relationship that's been forged here is extraordinary," North said. "I thought it was the right decision, and Fox backed me up.
"I have enormous affection for these guys," he added. "I'm sure it shows and it's not professional and not objective and all that crap. I love being with Marines, and obviously the affection is returned." Some, he noted, have put Fox News stickers on their helicopters.
Most journalists agree that they tend to form strong bonds while eating and sleeping with the soldiers.
"Not unlike covering a state house or Congress, you get cozy with the people you cover," Rodgers said. "They take you into their confidence. You end up self-censoring for obvious reasons. You're at ground zero -- no one with an ounce of sense is going to betray sensitive information. And you don't want to get innocent people killed."
NBC's Dana Lewis, who is with the 101st Airborne, said from northern Kuwait that "we know unbelievable amounts of information" but that "you can't use a lot of it." Still, he said, "we'll go back to this two or three months from now and say, 'This was the original battle plan and this is what really happened to these guys.' We'll do a reality check, which I think is valuable."
ABC's Don Dahler said there has to be a "church and state relationship" between journalists and the military and that he's reported on frustrating delays in the 101st Airborne receiving Humvees and missiles needed for battle.
But, he said, "being objective doesn't necessarily mean you have to be in opposition all the time. If you see something that impresses you about soldiers or the military, I don't think it compromises our journalistic ethics to say that. Not in a jingoistic way, but in the same way you would if you were covering a corporation that is well run."
The Iraqis also have an impact on coverage. Saddam Hussein's government yesterday ordered CNN correspondents Nic Robertson and Rym Brahimi and two staffers to leave Baghdad, after having expelled a Fox crew several weeks ago.
The war has just begun, and the correspondents haven't yet had to confront the more difficult assignments of war -- military mistakes, friendly-fire incidents and, most likely after yesterday's bombardment of Baghdad, civilian casualties.
"When we move into the battlefield, the door is open and there's no way to close it," Lewis said. "We'll see the good operations and the bad operations, if there are any."