The Lobbyist v. The New York Times


Vicki Iseman's action against the Times for its article linking her to John McCain highlights the risks of filing a libel suit

The libel lawsuit filed by lobbyist Vicki Iseman against The New York Times on Dec. 30 set tongues wagging in media and political circles. But the case also highlights what is often a major conundrum for plaintiffs: The filing of suits claiming harm to a plaintiff's reputation immediately catapults the allegedly damaging material back into the public arena. Business executives must also weigh exposing their companies, colleagues, and perhaps even clients or customers to the intrusive process of litigation. Will the benefits of such lawsuits outweigh the risks?

Iseman's suit, filed in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia in Richmond, Va., involves a front-page story the Times published during the Presidential campaign last February. The article stated that in 1999 advisers to Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) were "convinced" that McCain's relationship with Iseman "had become romantic." While the 3,000-word article contained denials by McCain and Iseman, it went on to chronicle Iseman's dealings with McCain and explore the origin of the advisors' concerns that their relationship had become personal.

Iseman is a partner at Alcade & Fay, a well-known Washington lobbying firm. In her complaint, which seeks millions of dollars in damages, Iseman denies that she and McCain were romantically involved. The Times's article, she says, was "immediately and powerfully damaging" to her reputation. "Professional associates, clients, members of Congress, congressional staffers, and others that were vital to Ms. Iseman's livelihood and reputation changed their attitude toward her," the complaint says.

Discovery: the downside

Eric Dezenhall, chief executive of Washington communications firm Dezenhall Resources, says he generally advises clients not to pursue defamation suits because it opens them up to extraordinary scrutiny through the legal process. "Do you want every single thing about your business interests, even if it's not improper, coming out?" he asks.

Defamation suits filed by companies remain relatively rare. W. Coleman Allen Jr., Iseman's lead attorney, emphasizes that she is suing as an individual and that her firm "is not at all involved." He declined to discuss whether the firm was consulted about the suit's filing; no discussions were held with Senator McCain, he says. Alcade & Fay didn't respond to a weekend request for comment.

David S. Korzenik, an attorney who defends media companies in defamation cases—but is not involved in Iseman's suit—says her complaint "undercuts its own case." That's because it chronicles reaction to the story by other media, much of which excoriates the Times for sloppy journalism and innuendo. "If you look at the actual fallout from this article, it's very, very clear that nobody thought it was delivering proof of an illicit affair," says Korzenik. "Ultimately nobody thought the Times had much."

Dezenhall notes that "when it comes to public image, large corporations"—the type represented by Iseman's firm—"don't want to be anywhere near a controversy like this." The story doesn't have to be true, he says. "They don't even want to get the call."

In a statement, the Times said: "We fully stand behind the article. We continue to believe it to be true and accurate, and that we will prevail."

Orey covers corporations for BusinessWeek.

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