There are hundreds of them, each armed with the latest technology, each wearing desert fatigues. Many are advancing on Baghdad.

They are the "embeds" - the journalists who have been given the unprecedented opportunity to travel with U.S. combat units in exchange for an agreement to withhold details from the public that the military feels could compromise its mission.

The result has been often riveting television, replete with eyewitness accounts of actual fighting, images of withering sandstorms, intimate interviews with service members - and a style of reporting that represents a tectonic shift in war coverage.

During the gulf war in 1991, television reporters relied on black-and-white videos of bombing raids released by the Defense Department and official accounts of precise air attacks, many of which later proved unfounded.

Now television stations have no need to depend solely upon images and information provided by the Pentagon. Instead, major television news divisions offer footage from reporters accompanying the troops. The coverage includes compelling images, quick-paced (and seemingly relentless) news bulletins and tightly structured stories. But network and cable executives acknowledge that they are struggling to make sense of so many dispatches flowing from so many sources.

Part of the problem is that the still-fledgling "embed" system almost guarantees too much information, much too fast. "We've been swamped," says Tom Bettag, co-executive producer of ABC News' Nightline. "Beyond telling people interesting vignettes, we have to be able to find a way to tell the broader story."

He adds, "When it comes to the human question - 'Are we winning, or aren't we?' - you could watch for days and not be able to answer."

Kim Hume, Fox News Channel's Washington bureau chief, echoes his concern.

"You have a tendency to put a great emphasis on any one thing," she says. "If the turret inside a tank is shooting at the enemy, that's very compelling. But in any perspective it's two seconds of a war."

War in real time

Integrating reporters into combat units generates vivid descriptions of battle in unprecedented time. As Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld pointed out yesterday in a news briefing, during World War II, newsreels took weeks to be shown in the United States and during the Vietnam War, there was a several-day time lag before television films were aired.

In today's impatient media world, however, news of the war is being served up almost as it happens. Cable stations, in particular, have rushed their "embedded" reporters on the air simply because they are able to transmit images. With little notice, military officials will order blackouts if they are about to embark on a mission.

Last Sunday, for example, MSNBC's Kerry Sanders crouched behind a berm in An Nasiriyah, sketching designs in the dirt like a sandlot quarterback to indicate how U.S. Marines and loyalists to Saddam Hussein were exchanging heavy fire.

The crew with ABC's Ted Koppel showed the U.S. forces as they breached the Iraqi border at the start of hostilities. Fox News' Rick Leventhal showed tanks as they whipped northward across the desert. Those watching CNN's Walter Rodgers could have seen Iraqi mortar fire strike nearby. Sometimes what viewers see is newsworthy, sometimes mesmerizing, sometimes just borderline diverting.

Such access hinges on strong relations with local commanders, who have great leeway to place limits on the reporters tagging along for the ride.

Stuart Ramsey of the United Kingdom's Sky News was expelled from the U.S. 101st Airborne Division for broadcasting an interview with one of the soldiers wounded by the grenade explosion on Saturday. The soldier's face was shown and his name disclosed. Ramsey was holding one of Fox News' slots to travel with the 101st, as Sky and Fox are both owned by Rupert Murdoch's News Corp.

But Fox News executives say Ramsey scrupulously followed Defense Department guidelines: The young soldier had explicitly given permission for his name and face to be used. In less than a day's time, the decision to eject Ramsey had been reversed, Fox officials say. (A military spokesman based in Kuwait would not confirm any specific incidents involving Ramsey or other "embedded" reporters.)

The U.S. military has insisted that correspondents not reveal any details that might give Iraqi strategists any advantage. Media outlets have readily agreed, though some commanders and Defense Department officials have urged even greater caution.

To some media critics, it makes for a cozy feel, as though there's an unstated, if understandable, presumption of shared goals. A few observers have been more caustic: "The 'embeds' have turned into virtual hostages whose safety depends in part on their acquiescence," wrote Cynthia Cotts of the left-of-center Village Voice. "The spectrum of available truth must be severely limited when the embeds cannot always report what they know, and their independent colleagues are rarely given anything to report."

Stories from the front lines also frequently bestow a golden hue on their subjects. NBC's boisterous David Bloom has spoken on the air of his affection for the soldiers in the U.S. Army 3rd Infantry Division. Former Marine Lt. Col. Oliver North - the notorious White House aide turned radio talk show host - avowedly identifies with the members of the 1st Marine Unit that he's accompanying for Fox News. Soldiers and marines appear to have become more comfortable with the press over the weeks - even welcoming the reporters, as their presence is felt to validate the work of the armed forces.

Balance has to be found elsewhere - from knowledgeable analysts in network studios or reporters barking questions at press briefings. Sometimes such skepticism can be tough to come by, as debates center largely around tactics. Arab and European journalists, many from countries with deep opposition to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, have questioned whether the American media is sanitizing the war by limiting shots of U.S. casualties and prisoners of war.

Despite the proximity to combat troops, the images of carnage shown on television remain at a remove compared to pictures of the body bags and burning villages that haunted coverage of the Vietnam War.

At the same time, each network appears to be vying to declare that its correspondents are closest to the deadliest action.

Within a 48-hour period last weekend, ABC's Bob Woodruff, NBC's David Bloom, and CNN's Walter Rodgers were each described by their respective networks as being on "the tip of the spear." The three men were each accompanying a different division.

Meanwhile, anchors keep advising correspondents to "take care" or "be safe." While undoubtedly heartfelt, such supportive words also highlight how brave these correspondents are being. So often war reporting ends up being about war reporters.

As it happens, the reporters surrounded by troops are much safer than those traveling near the conflict independently. At least two Western journalists, who were traveling without military escort, are dead, and several more are missing.

There can be valid reason for a journalist to break away from the military. Much that is newsworthy has been tracked down by correspondents "outside the military bubble," in the words of ABC News' John Donvan.

He filed a report that aired late Monday night on Nightline after he followed in the wake of American forces, past the Kuwaiti border to Safwan in southern Iraq. He arrived not as an "embed," but as a "unilateral" - a reporter traveling apart from the military.

And he found that the same Iraqis who had welcomed the invasion now saw U.S. troops as conquerors, not liberators. Some of the angry Iraqis had family members who had been accidentally killed by the U.S.-led coalition.

"What else did we see by going in as 'unilaterals'? The close-up view of 'collateral damage'," Donvan said. "The U.S. says it's trying to limit injuries to civilians. It's hard not to take it personally when the collateral damage is you."

Any depiction of the greater narrative of this war has to include such small stories outside the view of the swashbuckling "embeds."

David Folkenflik's TV/Radio column will return.

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