Journalists who participated in a mock invasion in Central America this week said the first test of their news pool "failed miserably," as one put it, when they tried to send their stories back to editors in the United States.
"We could have done better with carrier pigeons," said Benjamin Shore, a correspondent with Copley News Service.
However, seven members of the 10-man pool indicated at a Pentagon news briefing yesterday that they thought the effort was worthwhile and that it should be tried again.
In the week since the Pentagon's mobilization of its first secret press pool at 6 p.m. last Saturday, media executives and Pentagon officials have complained about the maneuver.
But both sides said they are not ready to give up on the difficult task of having reporters on the scene to cover surprise military operations.
Pentagon officials were concerned that within hours of calling news organization executives to locate reporters selected for the exercise, word of the mobilization had "leaked" to someone they believed was unauthorized to know about it.
Media executives here complained that the Defense Department did not use the agreed-on procedures of notifying the media, especially the networks. And several of those who participated in the exercise were angry that once the story became known, the Pentagon did not call their organizations to release them from their vow of secrecy.
On the ground in Honduras, the reporters mostly continued to play out their role even though they were aware that the nature of their mission became widely known Sunday and was reported in The Washington Post on Monday.
Although they found some rough moments maneuvering down a 40-foot "killer ladder" and suffered a bit from the Honduras heat, the pool members said their most difficult encounters were with U.S. military officers assigned to assist them.
"For four days, in dealing with our escorts, our filing requests were confronted initially with courteous indifference and then hostile indifference," said Howell Raines, deputy Washington editor of The New York Times. "And that was pretty much the same throughout the trip."
Raines, who said he hoped that future military media escorts would be able to "set aside their value judgments about what is being filed," said he believed the problem was not so much a matter of difficulties with military rules or communications facilities.
"I think it was rooted in attitudes," he said. "I think we were the collision point between two professional cultures that don't understand each other very well. One is the professional culture of the military officer and the other is the professional culture of the journalist."
Since the mock invasion had been announced by the Pentagon a week in advance, other reporters were on the beach in Honduras to watch the military and their colleagues come ashore.
Pool members having difficulty sending information back to Washington through the military gave film and tape to these reporters to transmit.
The television representative on the pool, Gene Randall of Cable News Network, found that the military had not arranged for shipping his film back to the other networks, so he got an NBC reporter in Honduras to send it back to the United States.
However, the NBC transmission lacked Randall's commentary, so CNN had film from its correspondent but lacked his explanations of the operation.
Barry Thumma, a photographer for the Associated Press, brought a portable developing kit and transmitter to send photographs by phone.
However, the military was not able to provide him with a phone until Thursday, two days after the "invasion" began, and his only transmission courtesy of the military came during a stop in the United States en route home.
While in Honduras, Thumma passed some film to fellow reporters on the beaches.
Newspaper reporters trying to file through the military system, set up on the USS Nassau, were told that telephone links were for secret transmissions to the United States. One pool report, filed Wednesday by teletype, reached newspapers in the United States about 21 hours later.
"We have a long way to go, both in notification and in the field," Pentagon spokesman Michael I. Burch said before yesterday's briefing.
Afterward, he agreed with some pool members that "we have forgotten how to deal with the press since Vietnam," adding that the Joint Chiefs of Staff are committed to trying the pool exercise again.