Remember Vicki Iseman, the telecom lobbyist at the center of the Times' February 21, 2008 anti-John McCain hit piece? In a tactic disparaged by media critics left and right, the Times hinted, without evidence, that Iseman was having an affair with Sen. McCain. Iseman sued the Times for defamation late last year, charging that the paper "falsely communicated" she had a romantic relationship with McCain in 1999. Now the suit has been settled in print, without a trial or money changing hands.
An article published on February 21, 2008, about Senator John McCain and his record as an ethics reformer who was at times blind to potential conflicts of interest included references to Vicki Iseman, a Washington lobbyist. The article did not state, and The Times did not intend to conclude, that Ms. Iseman had engaged in a romantic affair with Senator McCain or an unethical relationship on behalf of her clients in breach of the public trust.
As soon as the New York Times and lobbyist Vicki Iseman settled her lawsuit against the paper, both sides claimed victory.
Washington bureau chief Dean Baquet told staffers that the Times didn't pay any money or apologize for the controversial February 2008 story that relied on the impression of anonymous advisers that Iseman and Senator John McCain were having an affair. Those advisers, according to the story's lead, were "[c]onvinced the relationship had become romantic."
"We did not retract one word of the story," Baquet said.
But Rodney Smolla, an attorney for Iseman, sees things differently, pointing out the "Note to Readers" running in Friday's paper.
"It is a retraction of the implication," he said, of the implication "that Ms. Iseman had this unethical, romantic relationship with Senator McCain."
But it was also The Times reputation that came under attack immediately following publication, with then candidate McCain, with wife Cindy by his side, publicly denying the apparent suggestion of an affair.
Criticism of the piece came from the left and right. And POLITICO included it on a year-end list of media blunders, one of several pieces of critical commentary that Iseman's lawyers included in the suit. Throughout the campaign, the relationship between the Times and the McCain team remained fractured, with several skirmishes along the way.
A statement from Iseman's lawyers was posted on nytimes.com, where they explain why they pushed the defamation lawsuit - arguing Iseman was a private citizen, not a public figure. Such a finding would result in a lesser degree of constitutional protectionto defamatory statements made about Iseman by the New York Times.
Ms. Iseman, however, is not a government or public official, and in our view, not even a public figure. Had this case proceeded to trial, the judicial determination of whether she is entitled to the protections afforded a private citizen would have been the subject of a ferocious, pivotal battle, with Ms. Iseman insisting on her status as a private person and The New York Times asserting that she had entered the public arena, and was therefore fair game. That judicial contest has now been concluded in this instance, but the issue deserves ongoing scrutiny, certainly in our schools of law and journalism, but also in the arena of public debate.
Executive Editor Bill Keller stood firm, saying "we stand by our coverage, and we are proud of it," and responded with the same shot at McCain the paper took in its "Note to Readers."
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 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.