Vicki Iseman sues the NYT

The fit is hitting the shan:

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — A Washington lobbyist sued The New York Times for $27 million Tuesday over an article that she says gave the false impression she had an affair with Sen. John McCain in 1999.

The newspaper stood by the story.

Vicki L. Iseman filed the defamation suit in U.S. District Court in Richmond. It also names as defendants the Times’ executive editor, its Washington bureau chief and four reporters.

Iseman represented telecommunications companies before the Senate Commerce Committee, which McCain chaired. In February, as McCain was seeking the Republican presidential nomination, the Times reported that McCain aides once worried the relationship between Iseman and McCain had turned romantic.

The article said that both McCain and Iseman denied any romantic relationship, but the lawsuit says most readers would find that obligatory.

“That The New York Times would make such aggressive and sensational allegations and insinuations in the face of on-the-record denials by Ms. Iseman and Senator McCain only reinforced the message to readers that The New York Times in fact believed that Ms. Iseman and Senator McCain had indeed engaged in an `inappropriate relationship,’ a relationship that was romantic, unethical, and a conflict of interest,” the lawsuit says. “Otherwise, reasonable readers would conclude, The New York Times would never have printed the story at all.”

The Times maintained its defense of the story in a statement Tuesday.

“We fully stand behind the article. We continue to believe it to be true and accurate, and that we will prevail,” the statement said. “As we said at the time, it was an important piece that raised questions about a presidential contender and the perception that he had been engaged in conflicts of interest.”

Richmond lawyer W. Coleman Allen Jr., who represents Iseman, said she waited until after the presidential election to file the suit because she didn’t want it to become a distraction.

The lawsuit claims that other media outlets were investigating McCain’s ties with Iseman and that the Times was so concerned about being scooped that it printed a story “to pack the maximum sensational impact with the minimum factual support.” The lawsuit contends she suffered an “avalanche of scorn, derision, and ridicule” that damaged her health.

The lawsuit cites accounts from other media, political pundits and the Times’ public editor, Clark Hoyt, that interpreted the article as meaning that McCain and Iseman had an affair.

Here are the details of Iseman’s complaint against the NYT.

Does Iseman have a good chance of winning? One constitutional law professor says probably not:

Keith Werhan, a constitutional law professor at Tulane University, said key to Iseman’s case will be how the court defines her — as a public figure or a private figure. Public figures have to meet a higher standard of proof, and show malice by a news outlet.

Werhan also said the Times could be protected if it accurately quoted McCain’s former aides about their perceptions of his relationship with Iseman.

“If all those statements are true, then it seems to me the Times is not at fault for reporting that,” Werhan said.

“It’s essentially hard to win a defamation suit,” Werhan added. “The idea is the First Amendment has its thumb on the press’ side of scales.”

Roger L. Simon adds:

Iseman’s lawyers write in their complaint: “The defamatory statements, expressed and implied, that Ms. Iseman had a romantic relationship with Senator McCain, are entirely false.” That’s pretty unequivocal, but as we know, defamation is difficult to prove in the US where the laws, unlike in the UK, are tilted in favor of the media. Still, Iseman sued, knowing as she surely must that her private life is now going to be exposed beyond her wildest dreams. Under those circumstances, it’s reasonable to assume she has confidence the facts vindicate her.

I have no direct knowledge of the case or of Iseman, but if I were the Times, I would be afraid. I would be very afraid. They have a lot more to lose than the 27 million bucks in the suit. Their reputation is already tarnished and their bottom line diminishing. If Iseman can prove her case to the public’s satisfaction, it will constitute yet more bruising and a serious humiliation for the sometime “newspaper of record”. Those who have been accusing them of being nothing more than a scandal sheet – and a biased one at that, unlike the National Enquirer – will be vindicated. Indeed, if Ms. Iseman wins her case, the Times’ editors and publisher will be revealed to have been simultaneously boneheaded and despicable – an ugly combination indeed.

PS: Of course the Times could settle with Iseman (assuming she would cooperate) but in this instance that would be tantamount to an admission of guilt on the paper’s part.

Stay tuned …


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