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Possible Legal Woes for New York Times
February 25, 2008

By James L. Hirsen, J.D., Ph.D.
contributor to

It looks as though, in its recent piece on John McCain, The New York Times may have breached more than just journalistic ethics.

The New York Times v. Sullivan is a landmark case that initiated a series of Supreme Court decisions. As a result of the legal precedents that followed, it ultimately became much more difficult for public figures (as opposed to private ones) to sue a newspaper for defamation.

The second paragraph of the Times piece stated: “Convinced the relationship had become romantic, some of his [McCain’s] 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.”

If the sexual innuendo embodied in the article is indeed false, McCain would have a difficult time bringing a lawsuit because of his public figure status.

Not so when it comes to the woman in the story. Telecommunications lobbyist Vicki Iseman is arguably a private figure whose reputation is at stake in the Times’ tabloid-tongued tale. The sexually tinged allegations in the piece are based solely on two anonymous sources, both of whom are former campaign aides of the presumptive GOP presidential nominee.

After the McCain article ran, Clark Hoyt, ombudsman of The New York Times, determined that the newspaper should not have published the story because it did not properly establish the alleged sexual relationship between McCain and Iseman.

According to Hoyt, most of the readers of the Times saw the report as a story about illicit sex.

If a lawsuit does ensue, Hoyt may find out that, on a list of witnesses for the plaintiff, he’s numero uno. In other famed legal news, Will Smith found out firsthand why the U.K. media are more careful than the U.S.

A lawsuit was filed in Britain over an article titled “Smith: Hitler Was A Good Person,” which was published by the World Entertainment News Network (WENN).

Rachel Atkins, Smith’s lawyer (referred to in the U.K. as “solicitor”), told London's High Court that the “I Am Legend” star believed Hitler to be “a vile and heinous man.” Atkins indicated that claims about Smith having stated in an interview that Hitler was a good person were “false and without any foundation.” The counselor added that the article “wholly” misrepresented “the claimant's actual words, given in an interview to the Daily Record, a Scottish newspaper and website.”

John Melville-Smith, the attorney for WENN, apologized for statements that “were misleading and published in error.” Smith was also paid an undisclosed sum for damages and costs.

Maybe the New York Times is taking notes.

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