Roger L. Simon

Vicki Iseman vs. the NYT could spell Big Trouble for the Grey Lady

As if the New York Times hasn’t had enough troubles of late – from Jayson Blair to a stock plummeting to such a degree they are said to be trying to sell their landmark office building – now comes lobbyist Vicki Iseman suing the paper over their article implying she had an affair with John McCain.  Who could forget that story, since it made its splash right at the height of the Arizona Senator’s presidential campaign, for a moment threatening to derail it? 

I remember quite well what I thought at the time.  I was supporting McCain, but I immediately feared the story was true, not because of anything specific to the candidate but because we all know that politicians often have testosterone issues.  They’re a randy bunch.  So I also recall being relieved when I read the actual February 21, 2008 article itself and found the evidence thin. People were dumping on the Times for reporting a half story with no substantiation.  Still, in my heart-of-hearts, the affair/relationship or whatever it was remained possible.  The Times had done its job to some degree, raising suspicions, not just for me but for many others.

Now, out of nowhere, Iseman is suing the Times for 27 million, claiming defamation.  Iseman’s lawyers write in their complaint: “The defamatory statements, expressed and implied, that Ms. Iseman had a romantic relationship with Senator McCain, are entirely false.” That’s pretty unequivocal, but as we know, defamation is difficult to prove in the US where the laws, unlike in the UK, are tilted in favor of the media. Still, Iseman sued, knowing as she surely must that her private life is now going to be exposed beyond her wildest dreams.  Under those circumstances, it’s reasonable to assume she has confidence the facts vindicate her.

I have no direct knowledge of the case or of Iseman, but if I were the Times, I would be afraid. I would be very afraid. They have a lot more to lose than the 27 million bucks in the suit. Their reputation is already tarnished and their bottom line diminishing. If Iseman can prove her case to the public’s satisfaction, it will constitute yet more bruising and a serious humiliation for the sometime “newspaper of record”.  Those who have been accusing them of being nothing more than a scandal sheet – and a biased one at that, unlike the National Enquirer –  will be vindicated.  Indeed, if Ms. Iseman wins her case, the Times’ editors and publisher will be revealed to have been simultaneously boneheaded and despicable – an ugly combination indeed.

PS: Of course the Times could settle with Iseman (assuming she would cooperate) but in this instance that would be tantamount to an admission of guilt on the paper’s part.