John Roberts, the CBS newsman traveling with the 1st Marine Division, is fed up with "all this armchair quarterbacking from people who aren't here."

In an interview from Iraq, where he whispered because members of his unit were sleeping nearby, Roberts sounds exasperated with those who are ripping the Pentagon's embedding program for journalists.

"Let them try not showering for a week, sleeping out in the desert, living through sandstorms, being under fire -- I don't see these people out there. All they do is criticize."

The 600 embedded correspondents have clearly braved difficult conditions to bring viewers and readers the most vivid, compelling and instantaneous coverage in the history of war. But they are taking considerable flak for overly sympathetic reporting, dismissed by some as part of the military propaganda machine.

As Slate's Jack Shafer puts it: "Embed reports from the front are mostly variations on the themes 'Hey, I'm still alive!' and 'Hey, those Iraqis are extremely dead!,' which must warm the hearts of the chain of command." Magazine columnist Roger Simon says the TV reports are all about star power, "celebrities like David Bloom riding in that M-88 tank recovery vehicle."

[Ironically, some military leaders are critical of the embedded journalist program because reports from the field don't always square with official assessments. See story, Page A25.]

No one denies that journalists who eat and sleep with the people they cover tend to form bonds, not unlike those forged in the traveling bubble of a presidential campaign. The feelings are even more intense when unarmed journalists must depend on heavily armed soldiers to protect them from enemy fire. But they fervently maintain that they are there to do a job.

"I did not and still do not buy into the notion that proximity necessarily influences coverage," says ABC correspondent Ron Claiborne, aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln. "In all honesty, I do not believe I would in any sense 'let up' on a story on this ship because I may happen to like the admiral or the captain or anyone else.

"I do not deny that reporters sometimes go easy on someone they like -- or go hard on someone they don't. That's human nature. But I do not think that living among the people we are covering undermines our putative objectivity."

Some of the early stories tended to be a bit gushing -- Mothers with machine guns! Hometown folks go to war! Awesome Abrams tanks! -- but that quickly gave way to reports on casualties, military mistakes and friendly-fire incidents. It was all too easy to confuse the humanizing effects of the camera -- what Americans wouldn't root for young soldiers in a hostile desert? -- with journalistic cheerleading.

"I don't think 'embed' means 'in bed,' " says Kathryn Kross, CNN's Washington bureau chief. "I can't imagine an alternative that would give us this kind of access, this kind of firsthand view, and be this comprehensive."

The passions ignited during the run-up to the war may also be coloring people's views of the correspondents in their chemical suits and gas masks. "There is a considerable minority in this country opposed to the war," Kross says. "If you feel that way, then you might take issue with coverage of the war."

The dangers are undeniable. CNN's Walt Rodgers found bullet holes in his vehicle after coming under attack. Roberts's CBS producer and engineer were 100 yards away from two exploding mortar shells. Fox's Oliver North was flying ahead of a helicopter that crashed. MSNBC's Brian Williams was forced to land after the helicopter next to his was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade.

Williams told viewers he has been asked, " 'As a journalist, how are you going to remain impartial covering this, now that you have spent two nights being protected by an armored platoon of the U.S. Army?' And the answer is, I will try, but I can report about what I have seen."

The strongest criticism of the embedded reporters, as they themselves acknowledge, is that they are providing a narrow snapshot of the war. This can create a distorted picture as small battles fill the screen with gripping pictures, and a single wounded soldier being interviewed by an MSNBC reporter can become a constantly repeating image. If 100 things go right on the drive to Baghdad and five go wrong, viewers are likely to see the most harrowing moments for U.S. troops again and again.

One reason the media have created the impression that the war is not going all that well -- drawing fire from President Bush and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld -- is the great expectations that journalists, embedded and otherwise, had a role in creating.

There were hundreds of stories about America's superior weaponry, the Bradleys and Apaches and the Mother of All Bombs, the superbly trained forces. There were so many advance "shock and awe" reports that the Rumsfeld phrase became journalistic shorthand for the war itself. There were speculative stories about how Iraqi forces would quickly surrender and citizens would hail their American and British liberators.

War, it turns out, is a far more messy enterprise.

Whatever the drawbacks of embedded journalism, most media people agree it's a vast improvement. Who would prefer the pool system of the first Gulf War, when a military censor took a Detroit Free Press piece describing returning pilots as "giddy" and changed the word to "proud"? Who is nostalgic for the war in Afghanistan, when journalists were barred from the battlefield and gleaned most of their information from official briefings?

Roberts, for one, is grateful to be with the grunts. "It's a good vantage point from which to watch the war because you're living like these guys do, and they respect you for it and tend to open up," he says. "They're not going to give you some whitewashed public relations spin.

"If you're just Joe Blow reporter coming in off the street, and you puff out your chest and say I'm going to ask the tough questions, you don't get good answers."

Reporter on the March

The San Francisco Chronicle has suspended technology reporter Henry Norr for at least two weeks for joining a demonstration against the war, at which he was arrested. "I consider this war immoral, illegal and unnecessary," Norr wrote in a posting on Jim Romenesko's media Web site. Saying he was suspended for falsely claiming a sick day, Norr says he is "sorry" the paper "feels it has to retaliate against me, on a patently ridiculous technicality, for demonstrating my opinion."

"The issue is not expressing a point of view," says Editor Phil Bronstein. It's "avoiding the appearance of a conflict of interest" and "maintaining the appearance of objectivity if you're reporting on a war."

Fox Fire

When antiwar demonstrators gathered outside the Fox News building in Manhattan, the network's outdoor news zipper replaced its headlines with taunts:

"War protester auditions here today. . . . Thanks for coming!" And: "How do you keep a war protester in suspense? Ignore them." And: "Attention protesters: The Michael Moore Fan Club meets Thursday at a phone booth at Sixth Avenue and 50th Street."

Unfair and unbalanced? "I thought I'd have some fun with it," says Fox zipper-writer Marvin Himelfarb, a former Hollywood screenwriter. "I couldn't resist."

CBS's John Roberts says journalists embedded with the military in Iraq can maintain their objectivity.NBC's David Bloom, above, broadcasts from an M-88 tank recovery vehicle; Time's Robert Nickelsberg, below, files by satellite phone. CBS's John Roberts says troops respect embedded journalists and therefore are not "going to give you some whitewashed public relations spin."