A prominent newspaper reporter is in custody for refusing to disclose secret conversations with Bush administration officials, while the curmudgeonly columnist at the center of the investigation remains free, his situation shrouded in mystery.

A White House that routinely whispers sensitive information to reporters continues to decry the practice of leaking, even as the probe raises questions about the involvement of the president's top political adviser.

The undercover CIA operative whose cover was blown by the leak, possibly in retaliation for her husband's criticism of the administration, poses for a discreet Vanity Fair photo and later returns to work at Langley.

A media establishment that swears by the sanctity of shielding sources turns on one of its own as the nation's oldest newsmagazine bows to a relentless prosecutor and surrenders a reporter's confidential notes.

This is a strange moment in the sometimes polarized, sometimes interdependent relationships among politicians, prosecutors and the press. Judith Miller of the New York Times is in jail -- not, for the moment, the administration official or officials who may have violated the law in discussing Valerie Plame's undercover role with her -- over a case in which her newspaper's editorial board praised the Justice Department's decision to bring in a special prosecutor.

Journalists, who have watched their public standing plummet in recent years, find themselves defending an abstract principle in a case in which the sources are not the sort of corporate and government whistle-blowers who were among Time's "Persons of the Year" in 2002 but rather political insiders seemingly bent on partisan mischief.

By upholding the principle of confidentiality, said Time writer Margaret Carlson, "you're protecting a creep."

What makes the spectacle even more surreal is that Miller never wrote a story about Plame after two senior administration officials passed the information to columnist Robert D. Novak two years ago. Some, including Plame's husband, former ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV, have suggested that she was identified in retribution for a Times opinion piece he wrote in July 2003, charging the administration with twisting intelligence in the run-up to the Iraq war.

Novak, in turn, found himself being grilled last week on CNN, where he works as a commentator, over his refusal to say whether he has testified, or has even been subpoenaed, in the case.

The plot took another dramatic twist yesterday when Time magazine's Matthew Cooper avoided jail, saying his source had freed him from his confidentiality pledge hours before the court hearing.

The jailing of Miller comes during a week when Bob Woodward, once played by Robert Redford, is publishing a book about his relationship with the Watergate source known as Deep Throat. The former FBI official, W. Mark Felt, has reached a book and movie deal in which he could wind up being portrayed by Tom Hanks.

The contrast seems to capture a changing mood toward the shadowy dealmaking in which journalists extract information by promising to withhold people's names -- a practice that major news organizations now admit has been overused and abused -- and sources use their anonymity to spin, settle scores or expose what they see as wrongdoing.

"The public no longer respects what we do," said Daniel Schorr, the veteran National Public Radio commentator, describing himself as "very depressed" about the atmosphere. In 1976, he recalled, a public outcry helped persuade a House committee not to hold him in contempt of Congress for refusing to reveal his source for a secret legislative report on the CIA. "Today they would send me to jail without a murmur," Schorr said.

The media world has its share of dissenters. "I don't think journalists should have special rights to be accomplices to crimes," said Jonah Goldberg, a National Review editor. While he feels sorry for Cooper and Miller, he said, "nothing burnishes a journalist's career more than grabbing a toothbrush and going to jail."

Although a number of journalists have been jailed in contempt cases -- from Myron Farber, a New York Times reporter who served 40 days in 1978 in a case involving hospital deaths, to Vanessa Leggett, who served five months in 2001 over a homicide case -- none has been as prominent as Miller, 57, and Cooper, 42.

Miller is a hard-charging, Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter and co-author of a best-selling book on bioterrorism. She is controversial for her reporting on sources who alleged that Iraq under Saddam Hussein was hiding weapons of mass destruction, but her involvement in this case has rallied some journalistic critics to her side.

In an interview yesterday, Times Executive Editor Bill Keller called Miller "a tough, principled, brave reporter."

"You can try to psychoanalyze what she's doing any way you like, but what it comes down to is a matter of principle," Keller said. "She gave her word. . . . I know it's been hard on her. She's a human being and she's scared and uncertain about what's going to happen to her. She's a little exhausted from having been so tirelessly out on the front lines."

Miller, who is married to retired Random House editor Jason Epstein, 76, calls the case against her "positively Orwellian." She recently told CNN the case was not about her but "whether or not there could be a Deep Throat today."

Cooper, who has worked for all three newsweeklies, is a soft-spoken politics junkie and a dead-on impressionist who has worked the comedy-club circuit. He is married to Democratic consultant Mandy Grunwald, whose father, former Time Inc. boss Henry Grunwald, died in February. Cooper said he bid goodbye to his 6-year-old son, Benjamin, yesterday morning on the presumption he would be heading to jail.

In an interview earlier this year, Cooper said: "The same law that could force a journalist to betray a confidence about a 'bad' leaker could be used to cudgel a reporter into outing a 'good' leaker."

Carlson, who wrote a letter to the judge on Cooper's behalf, called him "a Mr. Mom," adding: "People make fun of him because he's a stand-up comic, but he's actually very funny."

After the Supreme Court's refusal last week to hear an appeal of the contempt finding, Time Inc. Editor in Chief Norman Pearlstine explained his decision to surrender Cooper's notes and e-mails by telling the Times: "If presidents are not above the law, how is it that journalists are?"

But some media commentators have denounced Time's capitulation in the face of threatened fines, with the Salt Lake Tribune saying it now bears "the stain of corporate cowardice." Keller said Pearlstine's decision "gave the special prosecutor one more club with which to beat up Judy and Matt. It also sends a message that big media companies can't necessarily be counted on to protect their sources."

The stakes are equally high for the White House and Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove. President Bush, who was deposed in the case, has said he wants to find the leakers, but lawyers and spokesmen in the case have parsed their language carefully.

Rove, who has testified before a grand jury, denied again through his lawyer last week that he had leaked Plame's identity after Newsweek reported that Cooper's e-mails identify Rove as one of his sources.

Newsweek, which has had its own problems with unnamed sources -- the magazine retracted a report in May on U.S. prison guards abusing the Koran -- reported that there is growing concern in the White House that special prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald is interested in Rove. That was attributed to one of "two lawyers representing a witness sympathetic to the White House" -- demonstrating that despite the Plame case, leaking is alive and well in Washington.

Columnist Robert D. Novak, who revealed the name of a CIA agent, has refused to say whether he testified or was even subpoenaed.