Vicki Iseman files $27 million lawsuit against NYT over McCain hit piece

Remember that one? It blew up in the middle of the primaries, alleging that McCain staffers were convinced he’d had a “romantic” relationship with her in 2000 and that he’d admitted to acting “inappropriately,” then burned white hot for two days before it fizzled from the fact that even the left was embarrassed by how shoddy it was. Now, 10 months later, safe from any campaign consequences, it’s payback time.

The good news? Given their revenue trend, they might be judgment-proof by now.

The 36-page complaint charges that the story implies an “unprofessional relationship” between Iseman and McCain.

Both Iseman and McCain denied any improper relationship. However, the public viewed the story as being about an affair, according to the suit, which cites the post-publication remarks of 10 different commentators across the political spectrum. In each case, their comments about the story assumed it was about an alleged affair, the lawyers noted…

The suit claims that Iseman suffered damage to her mental, emotional and physical health. The lawyers noted that she continues to work as a lobbyist in Washington, for a firm based in Arlington. They said they anticipate developing their case on damages as the matter moves forward.

Here’s the complaint, the most interesting part of which starts around paragraph 50 with the argument about “actual malice,” i.e. reckless disregard for the truth or falsity of the material. She probably doesn’t even have to prove recklessness — for First Amendment purposes, assuming she’s regarded as a “private figure,” all she’d have to show is negligence — but since the story involves a matter of supreme public importance like the election, courts will be loath to hold the paper liable for bad reporting unless it was really, really bad. Was this really, really bad? Well, (a) other journalists looked into the charges and found nothing there; (b) not only McCain and Iseman but John Weaver, a central figure in the story, adamantly denied the perception of a romantic relationship; (c) the Times itself wavered on whether to publish it and didn’t pull the trigger until TNR pressured them into it with a behind-the-scenes story on the paper’s dithering; and (d) most damning, the paper’s own ombudsman dumped all over the piece. The crux of the NYT’s defense, then and now, is that it never asserted that the two had had an affair, merely that their relationship as Senator and lobbyist was inappropriately “close” and that some McCain staffers were worried that it might have turned romantic. Here’s Clark Hoyt rolling his eyes at that a few days after the story ran:

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…

I asked Keller why he decided to run what he had.

“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,” he replied. “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.”

I think that ignores the scarlet elephant in the room. 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.

Indeed, although that won’t stop them from standing by the story, of course. Exit question: Think Maverick’s excited at the prospect of reliving this chapter of his life on the stand, if need be?