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New York Times in Legal Hot Water?

By James Hirsen
February 26, 2008

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.

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