The New York Times and Washington lobbyist Vicki Iseman have settled her defamation lawsuit in which she claimed that the newspaper had falsely suggested she had engaged in a romantic and unethical relationship with Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. On its Web site today, the Times issued a brief "Note to Readers'' explaining that its story, published a year ago this month, did not "intend to conclude'' that Iseman had engaged in an affair with McCain, or had acted unethically on behalf of her clients.
Iseman filed the $27 million lawsuit in Richmond, Va., federal court in late December. She dropped the litigation Thursday afternoon. No money changed hands. Iseman had previously told National Journal she wasn't looking for money but wanted to see her reputation restored "as an honest broker in the political arena."
In one of the most sensational stories of the presidential campaign, the Times published a 3,000-word, front-page article a year ago this month suggesting that the little-known telecommunications lobbyist had an affair with McCain during his first run for the White House in 1999. The story did not provide any evidence of an affair, but said that McCain's top aides became convinced that the relationship was romantic and took steps to keep McCain and the lobbyist apart.
The story generated massive publicity. The Times was accused of publishing a salacious and unfair story. Even its own ombudsman, Clark Hoyt, joined in the criticism. Hoyt wrote, "If a newspaper is going to suggest an improper sexual affair... it owes readers more proof than The Times was able to provide.''
In a later series of interviews with National Journal, Iseman, 41, strongly denied having had an intimate relationship with McCain. A partner in the lobbying firm Alcalde & Fay, Iseman said in the interviews that the Times made her out to look like "a prostitute,'' someone who had used a romantic relationship to win legislative favors.
In its "Note to Readers," which also will appear in its print editions Friday, the Times said: "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 of 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 had engaged in a romantic affair with Sen. McCain or an unethical relationship on behalf of her clients in breach of the public trust.''
A joint statement issued by the Times and Iseman said, "The Times has maintained that the article was an accurate, important examination of the record of Mr. McCain... as an ethics reformer who was at times blind to potential conflicts of interest.'' The statement further noted that in dealing with Iseman, the story "focused on the fact that some top McCain advisers had confronted the senator with their concerns that the relationship had become romantic.''
To resolve the case, the statement said, "Ms. Iseman has accepted the Times' explanation... that the article did not state, and The Times did not intend to conclude, that Ms. Iseman had engaged in a romantic affair with Senator McCain or an unethical relationship on behalf of her clients in breach of the public trust.''
The two sides recognized, the statement concluded, that the story "generated a significant public debate concerning the privacy of people swept up in public matters.'' To that end, the Times agreed to allow Iseman's lawyers, W. Coleman Allen Jr. and Rodney A. Smolla, to write a commentary on its Web site.
In her own statement, Iseman said she was "pleased'' that the Times had issued "a retraction and clarification.'' She said that the Times and its reporters and editors "should and must be held accountable'' when they publish'' stories "based on innuendos, rumors and the reckless attributions of 'anonymous sources.'''
The Times viewed the settlement differently. Dean Baquet, an assistant managing editor who runs the newspaper's Washington bureau and helped oversee reporting on the story, told his staff in a note that the Times paid no money, did not apologize and "did not retract one word of the story.'' He called the story a "compelling chapter'' in McCain's political rise, and said that the note to readers on Friday "repeats what we had already said in countless interviews.''