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December 31, 2008

You Go, Girl

What a hoot:

Lawyers for Washington lobbyist Vicki L. Iseman have filed a $27 million defamation lawsuit against The New York Times for a February article about Iseman and her relationship with Sen. John McCain.

The suit, filed Dec. 30 in U.S. District Court in Richmond, also names as defendants the executive editor of the Times, its Washington bureau chief and four reporters who wrote the story. The suit alleges the article falsely communicated that Iseman and McCain had an illicit “romantic” relationship in 1999 when he was chair of the Senate Commerce Committee and she was a lobbyist representing clients before Congress.

Richmond lawyer W. Coleman Allen Jr. and Rodney A. Smolla, dean of the Washington & Lee law school and a First Amendment scholar, represent Iseman.

The 36-page complaint parses the nuances of the story, which Allen said in an interview is “very cleverly constructed.” The piece “could be interpreted as implying an unprofessional relationship” between Iseman and McCain, he said.

Both Iseman and McCain denied any improper relationship, a fact that was duly reported in the Times piece.

But political observers and the public did in fact perceive the story as being about an affair, Smolla said. That fact provides a significant basis for the defamation claim, Smolla noted. The complaint cites the post-story remarks of 10 different commentators across the political spectrum; in each case, their comments about the story assume it is about an alleged affair, the lawyers note.

The Times’ own public editor, Clark Hoyt, published what Allen called a “blistering attack” on the decision to publish three days after the article appeared.

The suit claims that Iseman suffered damage to her mental, emotional and physical health. The lawyers noted that she continues to work as a lobbyist in Washington, for a firm based in Arlington. They said they anticipated developing their case on damages as the matter moves forward.

The piece was published at the height of the primary season last winter, and, the suit states, the defendants knew that it would “reverberate around the world.”

The suit continues, “In their attack on Senator McCain, the [defendants] were willing to sacrifice Ms. Iseman as acceptable collateral damage, recklessly indifferent to the avalanche of scorn, derision and ridicule Ms. Iseman would suffer.”

Smolla noted that in one defamation decision before the U.S. Supreme Court, then-Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist observed that the purpose of defamation law is to provide an aggrieved party with a remedy.

But it also has the purpose of correcting the public record and of giving the public a remedy to “an offense to the public discourse,” he said.

I think this is great.

Without having read up on the specific law or laws Iseman is suing under, John McCain would have had a tough time suing The Times for libel or defamation since he's a public figure. Generally speaking, he would have had to prove the Times either knew for certain the information was false or that they acted with reckless disregard for the truth. That's an awfully high burden of proof.

As a private citizen, Ms. Iseman (and someone of the law slinging profession may care to correct me) should have a somewhat easier time of it. For the Times to imply she had a sexual liason with a married man amounts to defamation per se: a charge that is defamatory on its face.

I hope she rams this down Keller's throat. Note their smarmy defense:

Update: The New York Times issued a statement following the filing of the suit: “We fully stand behind the article. We continue to believe it to be true and accurate, and that we will prevail. 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.”

I hope they have some factual evidence of the so-called affair. "Raising questions" isn't sufficient justification for a professional news gathering organization to pass on unsubstantiated gossip cloaked as news. And anyway, isn't this what the Times called "despicable smear tactics" (at least when they were huffily dismissing fact-based allegations against the President-elect and his association with Bill Ayers)?

Posted by Cassandra at December 31, 2008 07:54 AM

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Comments

So, what do you suppose the NYT's editorial reaction will be --

1. aggrieved innocence wrapped in references to the First Amendment,

2. aggrieved innocence wrapped in references to essential truthiness,

3. a combination of both, or

4. "uh-oh"...

Hmmmmmmmm?

Posted by: BillT at December 31, 2008 08:23 AM

Darn. You got to the update before I did.

Posted by: BillT at December 31, 2008 08:29 AM

By comparison, I don't recall the same level of enthusiasm on the part of the NYT to report on John Edward's dalliance while his wife was fighting cancer. But then this is just another blatant example of a totally biased media promoting their ideology.

Posted by: vet66 at December 31, 2008 11:26 AM

Looks like the Times will go under soon and she will have to stand in line with all the other creditors

Posted by: dave.s. at December 31, 2008 12:13 PM

Let's hope that doesn't happen until *after* she wins...

Posted by: BillT at December 31, 2008 03:00 PM

'factual evidence of the so-called affair..'

What, you want faked memos, tapes and photoshops?

Posted by: Cricket at December 31, 2008 05:12 PM

Well let's hope that Ms. Iseman's award for damages is the tipping point that drives the NYT beneath the financial waves. Bill Keller is a twerp who is "enabled" by Pinch Sulzberger who serves as twerp in chief.

Posted by: Mike Myers at December 31, 2008 05:30 PM

I welcome the lawsuit for the spotlight it will place on the NYT's reportorial standards. In order to show good faith and disprove malice, the newspaper will have to explain a lot of inconsistencies in its approach to scandals affecting politicians from the left and the right. If this drives the paper out of business, all I'll miss will be the crossword.

Posted by: Texan99 at January 1, 2009 10:09 AM

Hey Cass, just wanted to stop by and wish you a Happy New Year!!

Posted by: Frodo at January 1, 2009 11:29 AM

Happy New Year, Frodo! :)

Posted by: Cassandra at January 1, 2009 11:35 AM

The NYT may do anything. And based on recent evidence they will choose the worst strategy.

But what they should do is retract and settle out of court. They have more important problems to deal with.

They can fight and probably win in court because the legal barrier is so high. They won't win in the public's opinion.

Settling costs them little. No binding precedent is set and the cost is relatively small. And they will look nicer, for what that is worth.

The NYT has a $400m line of credit which they must get extended by May. They probably cannot.

They are losing millions each month on declining revenues. There is no turnaround in sight. Their inbred management seems brain dead. Those facts forecast their fate, not some small lawsuit.

Posted by: K at January 1, 2009 01:32 PM

Happy New Year, Cassandra!

Posted by: RonF at January 2, 2009 01:02 AM

"I think this is great."

Actually? So do I.

Posted by: camojack at January 4, 2009 03:51 AM

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