The Pentagon offered Cox Newspapers eight coveted slots for reporters to travel with military units in the Persian Gulf, but the chain has given five of them to CNN in exchange for freelance contributions.

"We couldn't afford to fill all of them," said Susan Stevenson, deputy managing editor of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Cox's flagship paper. "Covering war is expensive, and trying to cover the war in an objective and fair way is probably even more expensive."

The Baltimore Sun turned down two of its four combat slots because stationing one reporter on an aircraft carrier and another in Turkey seemed unlikely to produce front-line news. "We're prepared to pull out all the stops," said Sun Editor William Marimow. "But given the size of our foreign operation, we prefer flexibility."

Television, meanwhile, is launching a small-scale invasion. "In all likelihood, these are the largest operations any of the network news divisions has ever mounted," said ABC News spokesman Jeffrey Schneider. "We have a huge number of people in the region. It's a massive undertaking."

As more than 500 journalists join U.S. forces poised for an assault on Iraq, they are, for now, producing the kind of human-interest features that are generally pleasing to the Pentagon. After years of media complaints about a lack of access to military conflicts, defense officials have thrown open the doors to an ambitious mobilization that they hope will humanize the war effort and help counter Iraqi propaganda.

But the real test of this system of "embedding" reporters and photographers with military units will come under combat conditions.

"This is a really radical step," said Mark Thompson, Time magazine's defense correspondent. "This could really work out well, and everybody is holding their breath that it does."

But Phil Bronstein, editor of the San Francisco Chronicle, sees "huge potential problems. I'm starting to call it implanting instead of embedding. You're going to have the famous fog of war. If you're in a unit you'll get to see combat in that particular moment in that square mile of the world. But we don't have any mechanism for seeing the larger picture."

Whether it's ABC sending Peter Jennings to anchor the evening news from Qatar this week or a Rolling Stone writer accompanying the 1st Marine Division in Kuwait, each media move involves a complex web of journalistic and financial decisions. At stake is not just the quality of war coverage but career-enhancing stories and corporate bragging rights.

More journalists will be in the field, Pentagon officials believe, than at the height of the Vietnam War. Newspapers participating in the embedding program range from the New York Times, Washington Post and Wall Street Journal, each of which has been awarded a dozen slots, to the Fayetteville, N.C., Observer, which has a reporter assigned to the Army's locally-based 82nd Airborne Division.

"I'd rather cover a war this way than the way we did during the Persian Gulf War," said Walker Lundy, editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer, referring to the limited media access to that conflict. "Unless it's a diabolical trick by the military, I'm pretty impressed that they're doing this."

Magazines include not just the big newsweeklies but National Geographic, People, Men's Journal and the National Journal. Twenty percent of the slots have been allotted to foreign news organizations, from the BBC and Norwegian television to al-Jazeera, the Qatar-based satellite television network.

ABC, NBC, CBS, CNN, Fox and the Associated Press have each been granted 26 slots. CNN, which expects to have 250 people in the region, has set aside $25 million for war coverage and has bought a couple of used Humvees in Kuwait City.

The broadcast networks will spend about $1 million a day on war coverage, executives say, and forfeit a similar amount in advertising revenue during the first couple of days of a war, which they plan to carry without commercials.

The network and other major news outlets are also dispatching roaming correspondents who will not be attached to any military unit, a risky endeavor underscored by Iraq's 40-day detention of CBS News correspondent Bob Simon during the 1991 Gulf War.

"You would never want this to be your only means of covering the war," Robin Sproul, the ABC News Washington bureau chief, said of the embedding program. "We've made a tremendous effort to place people outside those units."

Although traveling with soldiers is "valuable," Bronstein said, "you're completely under the control of the U.S. military. You can't get out. You can't necessarily file in a timely manner."

Smaller and mid-sized organizations are concentrating on what Marimow calls "customized" coverage, which in the Sun's case would include a Baltimore-based hospital ship now in Bahrain. "To the extent we can write about Maryland people, we're going to do that," Marimow said.

The road to independent war coverage is filled with potholes, both sides say. Military commanders could block timely stories on security grounds, and deadline-driven journalists could inadvertently release compromising details.

"It's important that both the news media and Defense Department are trying so hard to make this relationship work," said Victoria Clarke, the Pentagon's chief spokeswoman. The initial stories from embedded journalists "all seem very straightforward," she said, "and demonstrate that when it comes to training and preparation, the U.S. military is the best."

The 1960s coverage of the Vietnam War produced a generation of military officers who deeply distrusted the media. "The problem in Vietnam was never that reporters didn't get on with the guys in the field," said author David Halberstam, who covered that war for the New York Times. "They were always our sources. The tension was over the cumulative pessimism of what reporters were writing, as opposed to what Washington wanted to happen."

By the time of the 2001 war in Afghanistan, journalists complained loudly that so few of them were allowed to accompany U.S. forces, which Pentagon officials blamed on the covert and unconventional nature of a conflict fought mainly by Afghan rebels.

For the networks, the combination of greater Pentagon openness and 21st-century gadgetry could produce the most instantaneous war coverage in history, a far cry from the days when television film had to be transported by helicopter.

"The technology has improved to the point where one is relatively easily able to transmit voice and pictures from the field," said NBC vice president Bill Wheatley. "With a videophone, in theory you can broadcast from just about anywhere."

Time's Mark Thompson, for one, predicts that some journalists will go AWOL if their units aren't seeing action. "Once that begins to break down," he said, "it's going to get dangerous and messy."

For now, though, both sides seem to be cooperating.

"When you're living in tents with these guys and eating what they eat and cleaning the dirt off the glasses, it's a whole different experience," said John Hendren of the Los Angeles Times, who recently spent several weeks with the Army's 3rd Infantry Division in Kuwait. "I got a much better sense for how these guys live and what they're talking about in the mess halls."

But over time, he said, "you definitely have a concern about knowing people so well that you sympathize with them. I had to consciously distance myself to be able to write objectively. So I did end up thinking, 'Is this going to make this guy look really bad?' "

If war breaks out, the most sensitive issue is whether the presence of all those correspondents with satellite phones and video cameras will complicate life for the commanders. But Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman remains confident. "I've never met a reporter who has intentionally jeopardized a military mission," he said.

Howard Kurtz hosts CNN's weekly media program.

Journalists preparing to "embed" with Marine units receive training in Kuwait City. The military is providing gas masks and chemical suits to the more than 500 reporters joining U.S. military units for an Iraq invasion.