Will Vicki Iseman's lawsuit stand against the N.Y. Times?

A WSJ interview with a First Amendment scholar offers some provocative clues.

By Kevin Berger
January 1, 2009 4:18AM (UTC)
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Given that we've been glancing back fondly at 2008 this week in Salon, let us cast our minds back to Vicki Iseman, shall we? Specifically, let us recall the February New York Times article that notoriously declared that Iseman, a lobbyist, caused "waves of anxiety" to sweep through John McCain's small circle of advisors.

"Convinced the relationship had become romantic," the Gray Lady reported, "some of his top advisers intervened to protect the candidate from himself -- instructing staff members to block the woman’s access, privately warning her away and repeatedly confronting him, several people involved in the campaign said on the condition of anonymity."


The article unleashed the watchdogs of journalism in nearly every trade journal and university in the country, spurring debates on editing and anonymous sources, sex and politics, and what constitutes news that's fit to print. On Monday, Iseman added her own criticism -- a defamation lawsuit, seeking $27 million from the Times for its "act of negligence and actual malice."

And it is a doozy of a suit, spelling out the affair in aggrieved lawyerly detail. Don't miss the long list of Times-damning quotes the attorneys gathered from such hounds of opinion as Pat Buchanan, Tucker Carlson and Bill O'Reilly. Particularly intriguing is the suit's conclusion, which begins with this instructive sentence: "Liberals may live to love The New York Times, and conservatives may live to hate it, but all must admit that it has historically been among a handful of American media outlets that occupy a unique niche of authority and respect within American and world culture." Well, thanks for important insight, lawyers!

Today the Wall Street Journal posted a brief but provocative interview with a First Amendment scholar, Clay Calvert, on whether Iseman has a chance. In Calvert's view, the case will come down to whether Iseman will be deemed a public, or a private, figure. "A private figure only has to prove negligence to win his or her case, while a public figure has to prove actual malice," Calvert explains. In her complaint, Iseman claims she is a private figure, who "shunned publicity or media attention."


Calvert doesn't say so, but that does seem like a brazen claim for a lobbyist, especially one who has worked the Washington circuit for high-profile telecommunication and cruise-ship companies. In its defense, Calvert says, the Times could argue that Iseman is a "voluntary, limited-purpose public figure," or "someone who has put himself in the public limelight by speaking out on a certain issue."

He adds that's not a perfect fit for Iseman, and if she is deemed a private figure, she would then have to prove whether the Times "failed to exercise reasonable care and caution. Would a reasonable journalist have waited one more day or made a few more calls to try to get more corroboration on the story?"

Should the case get its day in court, journalism will again will be on trial, jump-starting new debates on reporter do's and don'ts, media ethics, and responsibility. Calvert, though, predicts the fourth estate will be spared the public airing, as the case is likely to be settled out of court.



Kevin Berger

Kevin Berger is the former features editor at Salon.

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John Mccain R-ariz. The New York Times