Now this is a defamation lawsuit that will be fascinating to watch unfold in Richmond, Virginia. Vicki L. Iseman, a Washington lobbyist alleged to have had an affair with Sen. John McCain in 1999, has sued the New York Times for $27 million. The newspaper stands by the story and this could produce a substantial ruling on the limits of defamation.
Iseman represented telecommunications companies before the Senate Commerce Committee, which McCain chaired and the newspaper reported that McCain aides were worried about their relationship being more than professional or platonic. The story itself does not seem particularly strong as the basis for defamation since the newspaper reported that McCain and Iseman denied the relationship.
What is most interesting about the lawsuit is Iseman insists that published denials are ignored by readers as perfunctory and meaningless. She has included accounts of how pundits and readers interpreted the language as a type of code for confirming an affair.
The lawsuit focuses on that part of the article where two former McCain associates had warned McCain that he was risking his career and recounted how he “acknowledged behaving inappropriately” and “pledged to keep his distance” from Iseman. One specific instance raised in the article involved McCain flying back to Washington with Iseman on one of the corporate jet of one of her clients. For those of us who have criticized corruption in Congress, I am more concerned with McCain flying around in private industry clients than what he did on the flight.
The New York Times has detailed how McCain seemed to be at the beck and call of Iseman to assist her clients. For example:
In late 1999, Ms. Iseman asked Mr. McCain’s staff to send a letter to the commission to help Paxson, now Ion Media Networks, on another matter. Mr. Paxson was impatient for F.C.C. approval of a television deal, and Ms. Iseman acknowledged in an e-mail message to The Times that she had sent to Mr. McCain’s staff information for drafting a letter urging a swift decision.
Mr. McCain complied. He sent two letters to the commission, drawing a rare rebuke for interference from its chairman. In an embarrassing turn for the campaign, news reports invoked the Keating scandal, once again raising questions about intervening for a patron.
It will come down to those sources. On a story of this kind, the Times is likely to have confirmed its sources and expected a threat of litigation. It will also be interesting how Iseman is defined: as a public figure or non-public figure. She has not sought the limelight. However, she is a lobbyist who deals with high-profile clients in national politics. If she is defined as a public figure or limited public figure, she will have even greater difficulty in prevailing. The governing precedent is not hard to find: New York Times v. Sullivan defined the constitutionally based standard later extended to public figures. I am sure the defendants have copies.