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Lobbyist settles libel lawsuit against New York Times

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  1. Libel and Privacy
Without a dime exchanged between them, The New York Times and lobbyist Vicki Iseman have settled her libel lawsuit over…

Without a dime exchanged between them, The New York Times and lobbyist Vicki Iseman have settled her libel lawsuit over an article she claimed falsely accused her of having an affair with Sen. John McCain.

The newspaper and Iseman’s lawyers announced the settlement in a joint statement posted on the Times‘ Web site Thursday afternoon, nearly a year to the day after the article at issue was published. The newspaper neither retracted nor apologized for a word — "We stand by our coverage," the Times said in its own posting, "and we are proud of it."

The Feb. 21, 2008 article, "For McCain, Self-Confidence on Ethics Poses Its Own Risk," reported on suspicions of unnamed McCain aides, which were said to have cropped up during his 2000 bid for the presidency, that his relationship with Iseman was romantic. McCain called a press conference the day the story was published to flatly deny any affair.

Iseman sued the paper for libel in late December, claiming the story left readers to believe there in fact had been a romantic relationship.

"To resolve the lawsuit," the joint statement reads, "Ms. Iseman has accepted the Times‘ explanation, which will appear in a Note to Readers to be published in the newspaper on February 20, that 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." The Note to Readers says exactly that.

In a separate posting on the paper’s site, Iseman’s attorneys, Rodney Smolla and W. Coleman Allen, Jr., wrote that the settlement obviates a "ferocious, pivotal battle" in court over whether Iseman is a private citizen, as she maintains, or a public figure, as The Times believes.

"The essential quality of our public discourse, even the very character of our national culture, will be heavily influenced by why, where, and how we draw this line," Iseman’s lawyers wrote. "To abandon, in law or in social convention, the division between public and private life, does not serve to advance the free exchange of ideas, but does coarsen our culture, cheapen our public discourse, and diminish our respect for human dignity."

"Our reporting was accurate," the paper wrote in its reply, which was also posted Thursday on its Web site. "We are confident that if they had been tested in court, the plaintiff’s arguments would have failed on the merits. . . . 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."