No settlement, no apology, nothing.
To the staff,
Vicki Iseman has dropped her lawsuit against The Times, just weeks after it was filed. We paid no money. We did not apologize. We did not retract one word of the story, which was a compelling chapter in the tale of Senator John McCain and his political rise.
The story stands as a powerful examination of a presidential candidate who cast himself as an ethics reformer and scourge of special interests, yet seemed blind at times over the course of his career to appearances of conflicts of interest.
The article was the result of deep reporting, dozens of interviews and an abundance of caution. I am as proud now of the work of the reporters — David Kirkpatrick, Jim Rutenberg, Stephen Labaton, and Marilyn Thompson — as I was the day it ran.
In Friday’s paper we are publishing a note to readers that repeats what we had already said in countless interviews, that the article did not state or intend to conclude that Ms. Iseman had engaged in a romantic relationship with Mr. McCain.
We let Ms. Iseman’s lawyers have their say in a commentary on the Web, with a response from Bill Keller. Why? Because that’s what we do. We let people we write about have their say.
Kudos to Baquet for having the sheer balls to write that last line. As for the part in boldface, it’s a transparent lie: The article did indeed intend to conclude, or rather insinuate, that Iseman and Maverick had been canoodling. The third sentence in the Times’s “bombshell” read, “Convinced the relationship had become romantic, 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.” That was enough to convince their own ombudsman to call shenanigans on their “who, us?” excuse-making:
The article was notable for what it did not say: It did not say what convinced the advisers that there was a romance. It did not make clear what McCain was admitting when he acknowledged behaving inappropriately — an affair or just an association with a lobbyist that could look bad. And it did not say whether Weaver, the only on-the-record source, believed there was a romance. The Times did not offer independent proof, like the text messages between Detroit’s mayor and a female aide that The Detroit Free Press disclosed recently, or the photograph of Donna Rice sitting on Gary Hart’s lap…
A newspaper cannot begin a story about the all-but-certain Republican presidential nominee with the suggestion of an extramarital affair with an attractive lobbyist 31 years his junior and expect readers to focus on anything other than what most of them did. And if a newspaper is going to suggest an improper sexual affair, whether editors think that is the central point or not, it owes readers more proof than The Times was able to provide.
I wrote in December that I thought that’d be good enough to squeeze a few bucks out of them, particularly if she was deemed a “private figure” for First Amendment purposes. Frankly, I’m amazed that the legal distinction between “X and Y were having an affair” and “anonymous sources were convinced X and Y were having an affair” is so enormous as to make the complaint not even worth testing against a motion to dismiss. Exit question to lawyers: Is there some other issue we’re missing here maybe? Why else would she drop the suit except that she was convinced she had zero chance of winning?
Update: Iseman’s lawyer tells Greg Sargent that he considers this note that’ll run in tomorrow’s edition “complete vindication” for his client. Weak:
An article published on Feb. 21, 2008, about Senator 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 Senator McCain or an unethical relationship on behalf of her clients in breach of the public trust.
As I said above, whether or not it intended to “conclude” that there was an affair, it clearly meant to imply that there might have been one, an impression everyone who read the piece was left with and which will be corrected only to a small extent by this “clarification.” In fact, they’ve already “clarified” their position: Bill Keller told the ombudsman shortly after the article ran that, “If the point of the story was to allege that McCain had an affair with a lobbyist, we’d have owed readers more compelling evidence than the conviction of senior staff members… But that was not the point of the story. The point of the story was that he behaved in such a way that his close aides felt the relationship constituted reckless behavior and feared it would ruin his career.” Pretty clearly Iseman’s lawyer realized he wasn’t going to win a defamation suit and this note was the best he could do. Unfortunate.