The bewildering scandal of the moment.

Confused? Sure. Who isn’t? One entertaining aspect of the story that reaches some sort of climax today is the struggle of the media to summarize or label it (hence, “the story that reaches some sort of climax today”). Once upon a time, someone went to Niger, which is not Nigeria, and off we go in time and space. Even Fox News has been driven to compound sentences.

All the glam elements are there: a secret agent, international intrigue, sex (if you know where to look), blogs, moral dilemmas, movie-of-the-week dialogue at the White House. (Aide: “Mr. President, somebody has inserted a lie into your State of the Union address!” The President: “This is clearly the work of al-Qaida. We must invade Iraq immediately. Or is it Iran?”) But somehow all these elements don’t cohere. Alfred Hitchcock coined the term “McGuffin” to describe the gimmick that keeps the plot moving. He said you need one. The trouble here is not the lack of a McGuffin but too many.

You can’t knock the names, though. Above all, there is the wonderfully Pynchonesque Valerie Plame. Plame: headline writers and copy editors seeking a short label for this saga were drawn like moths to this mysterious beauty, a one-syllable word of only five letters. And yet the eponymous heroine of the Plame Affair or Plame Controversy has actually been off-stage the entire time. Except for a brief appearance in Vanity Fair, posed rakishly with her husband in a sports car, it’s been Hamlet without the Prince of Denmark.

The husband’s name is forgettably bland. Joe Wilson? John Roberts? Something like that. Then there is the aide to the vice president who answers to the call of “Snooker.” Or is it Smoky? Or maybe Sunshine? In the typical movie about Washington, a character labeled as an aide to the vice president might just as well carry a sign saying, “I get killed off in the first five minutes.” And yet Snotty, or Skipper, or Snappy starts out as an obscure minor character and floats up steadily to the point where he is the central figure of the entire drama.

Anyway, let’s recap. Two and a half years ago, Robert Novak published the name of an undercover CIA agent in his column. He then joined Plame off-stage, where he has mysteriously remained ever since. Since he has known the answer all along, he may have been murdered to assure his silence. Although there is no evidence for this, it makes as much sense as any other explanation for his disappearance from the story line.

Enter the liberal media establishment, led by the New York Times. First seen charging up a hill, demanding the appointment of a special prosecutor to get to the bottom of this outrage, it soon was charging back down the hill, complaining that the special prosecutor was asking journalists to finger the leaker. Who else would you ask?

Judith Miller of the Times was the only reporter who declined any deal, at least at first, and went to jail rather than testify. An expert on germ warfare (the subject of her most recent book), she said that revealing her source would inevitably lead to a pandemic that would wipe out all of humankind. Or something like that. My notes are a bit hard to interpret.

Everyone assumed that Miller’s source was Snapper. Him and/or Karl Rove (another great name, especially for the official bad guy: a double rifle shot with the “K” in Karl lending a Teutonic flourish). He said he didn’t mind if she testified. She apparently didn’t hear this, so a couple months later he said it louder and she said OK. Then she testified that she couldn’t remember who told her that Valerie Plame was an undercover CIA agent, but it wasn’t Skippy. And she conceded that much of what she reported in the run-up to the Iraq war, relying on administration leaks, was wrong. So, she went to jail to protect a “source” who didn’t give her the crucial fact at issue for a story she didn’t write, but did give her inaccurate information for other stories. Huh?

The New York Times has started quietly, nervously backing away from Miller, like hikers trying to escape a rattlesnake. The rest of the media are fleeing without restraint. She’s not a good poster child for the cause. But the cause itself remains somewhat bewildering. Why should you go to jail to protect the identity of a source who has used anonymity systematically and successfully to deceive you and your readers? Why should Scooter Libby go to jail—involuntarily—for having a conversation with you that you think the Constitution should protect and even encourage? Either this whole prosecution is nuts, or the mainstream media’s view of reporters’ rights is nuts. Which is it?

The Republicans have their own plotline they’d like to impose on this confusing blur of events. It’s actually a dusted-off plotline from the Reagan Iran-Contra scandal of the 1980s: all about an “overzealous prosecutor” and “bitter partisans” on the other side who want to “politicize policy differences.” But two intervening developments have overroasted these chestnuts: Bill Clinton and Yahoo! When Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison pre-emptively mocked perjury as what prosecutors charge you with if they can’t find a real crime, it was the work of minutes for bloggers to find and post her comments from the Clinton impeachment about the transcendent seriousness of a perjury rap.

But despair not. Many of these contradictions and ambiguities will surely be resolved in Act 2. Please take your seats. The performance is about to begin.