Lobbyist, NYT settle $27M defamation lawsuit
Virginia Lawyers Weekly
By Paul Fletcher and Alan Cooper
February 23, 2009
Vicki Iseman, the Washington lobbyist who filed a $27 million defamation lawsuit against the New York Times for publishing an article linking her to Sen. John McCain, has settled her claim against the newspaper.
No money changed hands in the settlement, which was reached in exchange for what her attorneys, W. Coleman Allen Jr. and Rodney A. Smolla, called “an unequivocal retraction” of the allegation that she and McCain were romantically involved.
The suit was voluntarily dismissed in federal court in Richmond this afternoon, a day before a response was due from the defendants, which included the newspaper and six individuals who worked at the Times.
The Times agreed to publish a “Note to Readers” on its Web site that will be printed in tomorrow’s edition. Further, the Note will be embedded in the electronic archive of the article.
“In the modern Internet age, that is about as effective a correction as you’ll get,” Smolla said.
The “Note to Readers” says, “An article published on February 21, 2008, about Sen. John McCain and his record as an ethics reformer who was at times blind to potential conflicts 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 was engaged in a romantic affair with Sen. McCain or an unethical relationship on behalf of her clients breach of the public trust.”
The parties also issued a joint statement drafted by attorneys for the Times and Iseman and a commentary written by Allen and Smolla that also will be published in tomorrow’s Times.
The joint statement summarizes the lawsuit and its contention that “the article implied that Ms. Iseman had unethically capitalized on that relationship to obtain favorable outcomes on behalf of the clients she represented. Ms. Iseman’s lawsuit echoes criticism of the February 21 article by some readers, public commentators, and the Times’s Public Editor.”
The statement also contains the Times’s contention that “the article was an accurate, important examination of the record of Mr. McCain, then the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, as an ethics reformer who was at times blind to potential conflicts of interest.”
References to Iseman “focused on the fact that some top McCain advisers had confronted the senator with their concerns that the relationship had become romantic,” according to the statement, which says, “Several of Ms. Iseman’s clients and others state that she is respected, professional and effective in representing her clients’ interests.”
The commentary by Allen and Smolla is an exploration of the “significant public debate concerning the privacy of people swept up in public matters,” according to the statement.
Disregarding the distinction between public figures and private persons, “or to draw the line of demarcation in the wrong place, will degrade our political discourse, and diminish both the dignity of the individuals whose private lives are reported upon, as well as the dignity of the journalists and new organizations who report upon them,” the article says.
“It does not lessen the harm done in the life of a private individual, merely because that harm is viewed as collateral damage in an article whose focus is a public official.”
Allen noted simply that the essay is about “why this matters.”
Times Executive Editor Bill Keller, one of the six individual defendants, issued a separate statement of his own that was published on the Times’s site.
He noted that the case did not proceed. “It was settled without money changing hands, and without The Times backing away from the story,” Keller said.
He added that the Times shares “with Ms. Iseman’s lawyers a concern that journalists be sensitive to zones of privacy. Public figures should not be required to live every aspect of their lives in a fishbowl. The editors and reporters of The Times are mindful of the damage that can be done by overly invasive journalism or sensationalism. We feel an ethical obligation to avoid those kinds of journalistic malpractice, and we believe we did avoid them in this case.”
Iseman, who continues to work as a Washington lobbyist from a firm based in Arlington, “is of course very pleased,” Allen said.
The lawyers also expressed satisfaction with the result, noting the plaintiff’s team was able “to accomplish what we set out to do.”
Smolla said, “Libel suits are about vindication of reputation and correction of the public record.” This settlement “accomplished both those goals,” he added.
The lawyers acknowledged that the settlement between Iseman and the defendants may not represent “the typical manner in which these cases are resolved.” In this case, Allen said, “The system worked.”
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