Wen Ho Lee, an atomic scientist once suspected of espionage, yesterday settled an invasion of privacy lawsuit against the government for $1,645,000.
Five news organizations are paying almost half that sum to avoid contempt sanctions against their reporters.
In the suit, Dr. Lee said the government had violated privacy laws by telling reporters about his employment history, finances, travels and polygraph tests. The settlement followed seven months of unusual negotiations among Dr. Lee, the government and lawyers for the news organizations.
The five reporters were not defendants, but had been held in contempt of court for refusing to testify and ordered to pay fines of $500 a day for refusing to disclose the identities of their confidential sources.
The news organizations — ABC News, part of the Walt Disney Company; The Associated Press; The Los Angeles Times, part of the Tribune Company; The New York Times; and The Washington Post — agreed to contribute $750,000 to the settlement.
Specialists in media law said such a payment by news organizations to avoid a contempt sanction was almost certainly unprecedented. Some called it troubling.
Jane E. Kirtley, a professor of media law and ethics at the University of Minnesota, said she found the news organizations' decision to participate in the settlement "profoundly disturbing."
"These are very strange times in which we are living," Professor Kirtley said, "and it does appear that sometimes decisions have to be made that would have been unthinkable five years ago. But to make a payment in settlement in this context strikes me as an admission that the media are acting in concert with the government."
By ADAM LIPTAK
Published: June 3, 2006