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Times, lobbyist settle libel suit

The lobbyist who contended that The New York Times libeled her by accusing her of an affair with Sen. John McCain has settled her suit against the newspaper.

No money changed hands, but attorneys for Vicki Iseman contend that she received “an unconditional retraction,” although the newspaper disputes that its “Note to Readers” goes quite that far.

Virginia Lawyers Weekly has a complete account of the settlement, along with links to the “retraction,” a joint statement by attorneys for The Times and Iseman, and a commentary by her attorneys, Washington and Lee University Law Dean Rod Smolla and
Richmond lawyer Coleman Allen, that The Times will publish tomorrow.

By Alan Cooper

2 comments

  1. The New York Times has in no way, shape, or form retracted its article. Ms. Iseman’s lawyers, who sued for $30 million, won no money, no apology and no retraction. In fact, they got nothing more than a restatement of the paper’s initial public statements about the story, which it continues to stand by completely. A retraction is not a matter of dispute; when one happens, there is no mistaking it. The statement of The New York Times executive editor is attached.
    February 19, 2009
    A Response From The Times
    The commentary by Mssrs. Smolla and Allen gives readers a general sense of the case they would have attempted to make if their lawsuit had proceeded. But the first point to make is, the case did not proceed. It was settled without money changing hands, and without The Times backing away from the story. In the joint statement we are releasing today and in a “Note to Readers,” we reiterate what we have said since the story was published: that article did not allege an affair or unethical behavior on Ms. Iseman’s part. We stand by our coverage, and we are proud of it.

    The McCain campaign and some of its supporters set out aggressively to portray the article in question as a story about an unsubstantiated affair. But it was not that, either explictly or implicitly.

    What the article set out to do, and did, was to establish that Senator McCain — a man whose career was ensnared by scandal and then rebuilt on a reputation for avoiding even the appearance of impropriety — was sometimes careless of that reputation. The story reported that a senator who cast himself as the scourge of lobbyists rode on the private jets of business executives with interests before his committee, and that a senator who disdained the influence of corporate money accepted corporate money to support that very cause.

    The article also reported, in that regard, that the senator’s behavior toward Ms. Iseman convinced some of his aides that his relationship with the lobbyist had become romantic; that the aides warned the senator this could endanger his reputation; and that they set out to limit Ms. Iseman’s access to the senator. Our reporting was accurate. The article did not conclude that the senator and Ms. Iseman had an improper relationship. It quoted both Ms. Iseman and the senator denying that the relationship was anything but professional. It also reported that while Senator McCain sometimes sided with Ms. Iseman’s clients, he sometimes opposed them.

    The point of all this was that Mr. McCain, confident that he was above reproach, sometimes demonstrated, in the words of a friend quoted in the story, “imprudence or recklessness.” That seemed to us then, and seems to us now, an important thing for voters to know about a man who aspired to become president of the United States.

    We are confident that if they had been tested in court, the plaintiff’s arguments would have failed on the merits. In particular, we do not share the plaintiff attorneys’ views that their client is “not even a public figure.” A publicly registered lobbyist is hired to influence public officials on matters of public policy. That seems to us to be exactly the sort of figure journalists are supposed to watch with close attention, and who thus are required to meet a higher standard in proving defamation.

    We do share with Ms. Iseman’s lawyers a concern that journalists be sensitive to zones of privacy. Public figures should not be required to live every aspect of their lives in a fishbowl. The editors and reporters of The Times are mindful of the damage that can be done by overly invasive journalism or sensationalism. We feel an ethical obligation to avoid those kinds of journalistic malpractice, and we believe we did avoid them in this case.

    BILL KELLER

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