If Washington lobbyist Vicki Iseman wins her lawsuit against the Times over its February 2008 story about her alleged relationship with John McCain, maybe the company should just give her the Boston Globe.
Iseman -- the focus of a blockbuster Times story that intimated the possibility of a romantic relationship between the Senator and the lobbyist -- has filed a $27 million defamation suit against the Times in U.S. District Court in Richmond. The suit names executive editor Bill Keller, Washington Bureau Chief Dean Baquet, and the four bylined reporters on the piece: Jim Rutenberg, Marilyn W. Thompson, Stephen Labaton and David D. Kirkpatrick. (Thompson has since gone to work for The Washington Post.)
The 3,026-word story ran on February 21, and focused on the fact that McCain aides were troubled by the Senator's close ties to Iseman in 1999, when she was a telecommunications-industry lobbyist and McCain chaired the Senate Commerce Committee. The Times went so far as to publish this denial of any romantic relationship in the fourth paragraph:
Mr. McCain, 71, and the lobbyist, Vicki Iseman, 40, both say they never had a romantic relationship. But to his advisers, even the appearance of a close bond with a lobbyist whose clients often had business before the Senate committee Mr. McCain led threatened the story of redemption and rectitude that defined his political identity.
But the damage was done, and considered so severe that it inspired much debate in the media community over the propriety of the investigation. Three days later, Times Public Editor Clark Hoyt weighed in with harsh criticism of the piece, and the Times's handling of the story:
A newspaper cannot begin a story about the all-but-certain Republican presidential nominee with the suggestion of an extramarital affair with an attractive lobbyist 31 years his junior and expect readers to focus on anything other than what most of them did. And if a newspaper is going to suggest an improper sexual affair, whether editors think that is the central point or not, it owes readers more proof than The Times was able to provide.
“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,” the lawsuit charges.
The lawsuit includes this sordid depiction by Iseman's lawyers, of the damage done by the article to Iseman's reputation and mental health:
To be portrayed as someone who would engage in an inappropriate romantic relationship with a Senator before whom she conducted business on behalf of clients, was to cut to the heart of all that Ms. Iseman was, stood for, and believed in.
The external damage to Ms. Iseman's reputation led to a corresponding deterioration of her interior mental, emotional and physical health. As days and weeks went by, and the cruel gossip, whispers, blogs, rumors, confrontations, and innuendo about her continued, her despondency over the publication of the article and its impact on her life grew. Ms. Iseman suffered intense and severe emotional, psychological, and medical distress and damage as she experienced the destruction of her reputation, identity, and sense of self-worth.
And as for the Times:
Liberals may live to love The new York Times, and conservatives may live to hate it, but all must admit that it has been among a handful of American media outlets that occupy a unique niche of authority and respect within American and world culture. The very position that The New York Times occupies in American society, its reputation as a "newspaper of record," as "The Grey Lady," underscores both the damage caused by such reckless reporting and the egregious fault of The New York Times Defendants in publishing the defamatory article....
Readers read The New York Times in the belief that the paper neither states nor implies a fact unless it has the evidence to back it up. In publishing an article clearly implying that Ms. Iseman had an unethical, illicit romantic relationship with Senator McCain, The New York Times defendants betrayed that trust.
The Times issued a statement this afternoon standing by its story. It better have the facts on its side, because it sure doesn't have the money.