A New York Times story about a rumored affair between Sen. John McCain and Washington lobbyist Vicki Iseman has landed the paper in a $27 million dollar legal battle, The Times reported.
In a lawsuit filed in federal district court in Virginia this week, the lobbyist sued the Times for defamation over a February article that she said insinuated McCain and Iseman were romantically involved. As one of her attorneys, Iseman recruited renowned First Amendment scholar and dean of the Washington & Lee law school Rodney Smolla, who usually represents the media side in such cases.
The 3,000 word article, titled "For McCain, Self-Confidence on Ethics Poses Own Risk," focused on McCain’s rise out of various ethical dilemmas, such as the “Keating Five” scandal in the late 1980s. The article led with reported allegations that McCain and Iseman had been involved nearly a decade ago. Though the article never directly stated that there had been an affair, it quoted anonymous former McCain staff members who said they were concerned about the relationship between Iseman and McCain. During the time in question, Iseman had clients before the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, which was headed by McCain.
The article itself became big news when it ran – about 2,400 people commented on The Times’ Web site and media pundits from all political viewpoints made comments about the newspaper’s decision to run the story. Even Times Public Editor Clark Hoyt wrote a piece describing readers’ anger over the article.
All this media attention made the defamatory remarks even worse, Iseman alleged in her complaint. “Thousands of e-mail messages to The New York Times and exponentially more e-mail messages, blogs, and Internet postings interpreted the article as implying the existence of an illicit romance and unethical professional relationship between Ms. Iseman and Sen. McCain."
In support of this point, Iseman cited comments made in media outlets ranging from Politico.com to the National Enquirer to Fox News, suggesting that those commenters read the article as stating the two were romantically involved. In addition, she pointed out that Hoyt’s article says that readers inferred a romantic link, which the paper’s evidence did not support.
The complaint argues that the article is false and that Iseman did not have sexual relations with McCain. Iseman alleged that her reputation was damaged and that the “article destroyed the heart and soul of [her] professional identity and sense of personal self worth.”
The New York Times said it stands behind the article. “We continue to believe it to be true and accurate, and that we will prevail,” Abbe R. Serphos, a spokeswoman for The Times, said in a statement. “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.”