Re: The settlement agreement between lobbyist Vicki Iseman and the New York Times.
As a journalist, I’d make several points:
1.) Iseman emerged the winner. She didn’t get the $27 million she sought, but she won significant concessions. As a rule, a newspaper does not willingly give plaintiffs a good deal of space in its publication to argue their case in public, yet the Times did. In a note to its readers, the Times also acknowledged 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.” That too is significant.
2.) Iseman deserved this win; the Times deserved this outcome as well. The newspaper’s claim that it did not intend to imply a romantic relationship between Iseman and John McCain cannot withstand any honest reading of the piece in question. The article did try to communicate through innuendo what it could not substantiate with fact, and in fact the gap between what it implied and what it could prove was significant. That’s just bad journalism. We all make mistakes — I certainly have and I know I will in the future — but that story as written should never have gotten into print.
3.) Legally, the case rode on the question of whether Iseman, as a registered lobbyist, was a public figure or private figure. If the courts had ruled her a private figure, she might have won a significant financial settlement. If the courts had ruled her a public figure, she would have won nothing. Given that gray area, the settlement was a just outcome.
4.) I am a great admirer of the Times. I read it daily. But this story was the latest in a string of high-profile cases in which its reporting outran the facts available. That includes its poorly grounded, sensationalistic reporting of the Whitewater case with Bill Clinton, both in the news and opinion pages; the credulous handling of WMD allegations by reporter Judith Miller during the runup and aftermath of the Iraq invasion; and its railroading of scientist Wen Ho Lee as an alleged spy for China. Again, we all make mistakes. But when you make a series of similar mistakes, you ought to look internally at the cause and address it. As an outsider, it looks as if Times editors are pushing reporters too hard for scoops, or they aren’t insisting that their reporters justify their claims with facts.
UPDATE: I’m told that because of temporary technical problems, only the most recent 100 comments on each blog entry will be viewable. Older comments on the thread aren’t being deleted, they just won’t be posted.
Once we’ve fixed the problem, all comments will be restored. Thanks.