In the weeks since the government's uranium plant in Paducah, Ky., was rocked by allegations of radiation hazards, Joe Walker has covered the burgeoning controversy for the Paducah Sun.

An unusual choice, to say the least, since Walker was the public affairs manager for the very same plant as recently as 1995.

In fact, in memos to other plant officials during his stint at the Energy Department facility, Walker suggested ways to minimize the public relations impact of plutonium contamination of area groundwater.

Walker says he asked his editors if he should recuse himself from the story after The Washington Post reported the allegations in August.

"I basically told them if they were confident in my ability to do a fair and accurate job, I would continue to do that," he says. While there may be an appearance problem "in the minds of some," says Walker, "I'm confident most people who know me and my reporting are confident I can do a fair and unbiased job of reporting. My superiors have basically put a vote of confidence in me to do the job."

But Joseph Egan, an attorney representing four whistle-blowers who have sued the plant's contractor, Lockheed Martin, says that "any ethical standard would say you've got to recuse yourself. . . . He is the guy who helped to orchestrate the public relations on what they are going to say about plutonium." Egan says the Sun "is producing astonishing stories that this is no big deal."

The Sun, for its part, defends its coverage in editorials as "much more balanced" than that of out-of-town news organizations and warned against "baseless fears" fueled by "anti-nuclear zealotry." But Egan points to two Walker articles last week.

In one piece, Walker quoted the head of the plant's guard union as saying one whistle-blower "lied under oath" in congressional testimony. Walker concedes he made no attempt to contact the whistle-blower or Egan, his lawyer.

Walker also wrote that traces of uranium, neptunium, thorium and strontium have been found in deer killed 15 miles from the plant--but quoted the engineer overseeing the review as saying that "the deer are safe to eat."

Isn't it difficult to cover former colleagues at the plant? "Reporters are constantly writing stories about people they know well or are friends with, and in journalism you constantly have to put that aside," says Walker, adding that he has broken some stories.

A longtime reporter for the 30,000-circulation Sun, Walker left to play a very different role for the plant from 1991 to 1995. In one internal memo, he wrote: "We know and the public knows that some people drank contaminated water. . . . Perhaps the best approach is to say we know we have some chemical contaminants . . . in important pathways such as the groundwater, and that we don't know yet if they are causing harm to the public."

If the plant announced that its limited studies had found no evidence of contamination, he added, "the first thing a reporter like [Andrew] Melnykovych of the Courier-Journal might do is go to a family like the Dicks [who drank the water] and get their side of it, which wouldn't be attractive."

And in a series of suggested answers before a public briefing, Walker wrote that two other officials "need to determine whether we disclose the results of the special testing" of one well contaminated with plutonium. He added: "Another avenue here is to refer comments to the regulators." Walker says he can't discuss the memos without reviewing them.

While Energy Secretary Bill Richardson last month ordered a one-day safety shutdown of the plant, Sun Editor Jim Paxton, who could not be reached, has a different perspective. In a column, Paxton assailed the "media feeding frenzy" and took a swipe at those "in the heady pursuit of Pulitzer prizes." He said he's sticking with Walker because the reporter has spent 19 years with the Sun and just four at the plant, "and I think that says where his loyalties are."

Still, Paxton said he would have to pull Walker off the story if his reporter became a witness in the case. That day may not be far off; attorney Egan says he plans to depose Walker in a $10 billion class-action suit by workers at the Kentucky plant.

Double Dutch

The New York Times had a terrific scoop on the creative fiction in Edmund Morris's biography of Ronald Reagan:

"A person in publishing circles, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that at one point during the long writing process, Mr. Morris, 58, inserted himself as an imaginary young contemporary of Mr. Reagan, observing and witnessing Mr. Reagan's early childhood in Illinois. Someone else, who read the manuscript, said Mr. Morris had adjusted his own age within the text in order to surface as an observer during Mr. Reagan's acting days in Hollywood in the 1940s."

That story by Doreen Carvajal ran on Sept. 28, 1998. No one much cared. But when Carvajal saw an advance copy of "Dutch" and wrote about Morris's fictional techniques two weeks ago, it created a literary and journalistic uproar.

Obviously, with the Random House book itself for ammunition, Carvajal had far more damning detail about Morris's invention of a fictional character--himself--who appears long before Morris was born. Her 1998 story about the long-delayed book didn't mention the fictional device until the 12th paragraph.

Carvajal says her earlier piece didn't make much of a splash "because it wasn't a done deal then. The book could still evolve. Edmund still wasn't confirming directly that was what he was doing. He was being very coy." She says the technique is more dramatic "between the covers of a real book, as opposed to a manuscript that wasn't even in galley form."

Credit Carvajal's dogged reporting for breaking the story--twice.

Media Morsels

What did Viacom chief Sumner Redstone have in mind when he said in Shanghai that news organizations should avoid being "unnecessarily offensive" to foreign governments? After all, Viacom, which is trying to peddle MTV in China, will soon own CBS. Redstone says that "journalistic integrity must prevail in the final analysis" but that media firms can't ignore "the politics and attitudes of the governments where we operate." . . .

When Mob moll Judith Campbell Exner died last week, the New York Times was rather dismissive of her affair with President Kennedy, saying Exner had "claimed" and "asserted" a "supposed relationship with Kennedy" and that JFK aides had denied it. But an editor's note three days later said the piece "should also have reflected what is now the view of a number of respected historians and authors that the affair did in fact take place," and should have cited such evidence as White House phone logs . . .

Speaking of affairs, New York Post gossip Cindy Adams says she knew three months ago that NBC's Geraldo Rivera was leaving his wife C.C. for a twenty-something woman. She writes that she didn't report it because "Geraldo's my friend" and that she would never "break a story that breaks up a couple with children."