I don’t consider it an achievement, but I also got involved in the whole Wen Ho Lee issue—I was one of five reporters subpoenaed and faced the possibility of going to jail for not revealing my sources. Lee, a scientist at Los Alamos National Laboratory, had been accused of nuclear espionage and the government went after him but didn’t disclose his name. We, of course, wrote about it and who he was. The government couldn’t find enough to convict him of anything but a relatively minor offense and got a tongue lashing from a judge about how they had persecuted the guy. Lee filed a lawsuit against the government for violation of his privacy, but none of the government people that his lawyers interviewed would say who disclosed his name or how his name came out. So they decided to go after the reporters and try to get them to disclose their sources, which of course we decided not to do.

The judge held us in contempt of court and said there would be a $500 per day penalty until we revealed our sources, but the AP was extremely supportive of me. After losing an appeal, the case was actually on the verge of going to the Supreme Court, but there was a settlement made, in which the government and the five news outlets paid Lee $1.6 million. He dropped lawsuit and the subpoenas, which of course made our case moot before the Supreme Court ever decided whether or not to take it. To some extent, there was a little bit of controversy there, because there was concern that if big-pocket news organizations (you know, they used to have big-pocket news organizations) could be forced to pay to drop this kind of case, newspapers would be opening themselves up to being blackmailed basically. But that’s how it was settled.

My other claim to fame, and I say that with quotation marks, was waking up one day in 1995 to find that the Wall Street Journal had a story [unavailable online; see New York Times] on the front page that said that I was the least-liked reporter covering the Energy Department by Hazel O’Leary, who was its secretary at the time. Matt Wald [who still covers energy for The New York Times] was number two, and to this day, Matt gives me a hard time because I was number one.

It was a case of ridiculous stupidity on the part of certain government officials. It turns out that O’Leary wanted to get a better idea of what the press was writing about the department, so they hired this consulting company. The company followed articles written over a certain period of time and did a mathematical study. Every time a reporter wrote a critical article they got a negative point, and when they added all the numbers, I was the guy who had been the most critical. The only problem was that at the time O’Leary was doing a relatively good thing—she was investigating radiation experiments that scientists did on humans during the early days of the Cold War. When the consulting company did the study of the press, however, those articles got coded as negative—you known, human experimentation and all that—even though I wasn’t being critical of O’Leary. Don’t get me wrong, I wrote some stories that were critical of the department as well, but I think that’s one of the reasons why I was elevated in that study. Well, the study turned into, “Oh, they’re keeping a list of reporters just like back in the Nixon days,” and the department got a lot of flak for it.

CB: What did you find most challenging?

Curtis Brainard is the editor of The Observatory, CJR's online critique of science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.