Sarah Palin Lives Out Right-Wing News Media Fantasy in Court

Spencer Platt/Getty
Spencer Platt/Getty

After myriad delays and a bout of COVID-19, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin testified on Thursday in her defamation lawsuit against the New York Times, a rare case offering a right-wing blowhard a chance to land a significant blow against press freedom.

But by day’s end, the prospect of a major punitive damages award had evaporated. Meanwhile, the proceedings took a surreal turn when an-ex NHL player linked to Palin—the two have been holding hands in recent days—waxed poetic outside the courthouse about their “young friendship.”

“We’re friends. I’m here to support her. We have gotten closer through this process,” Ron Duguay, a former Rangers player, said.

Taking the stand in Manhattan federal court, Palin wasted no time in getting biblical from her self-described “penalty box” to detail a battle with the paper of record that she said damaged her reputation.

“I felt powerless,” Palin, wearing a white jacket and a black dress, told jurors on Thursday, adding, “I knew that I was up against Goliath… and I was David.”

Explaining her decision to file a lawsuit against the Times, which she (like many conservatives) claimed “took a lot of liberties and wasn’t always truthful,” Palin said that she thought about “what were the stones that David could use against Goliath.”

That stone, the former vice-presidential nominee explained, was her lawsuit over a 2017 editorial entitled “America’s Lethal Politics.” Prior to being corrected, the piece erroneously linked the former Alaska governor’s political action committee and its rhetoric to the 2011 Arizona mass shooting that killed six people and severely injured then-Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords.

“Here I was [in] Wasilla, Alaska, up against those who buy ink by the barrel, and I was up there with my number 2 pencil,” the Republican added as she described feeling helpless in the face of the Times editorial. “It’s hard to lay your head on the pillow and have restful nights when you know that lies are told about you, a specific lie that wasn’t going to be fixed, that causes some stress…. So yeah, tough to get a good night's sleep.”

Palin, however, admitted that she did not remember speaking to any of her closest friends and family after the editorial. She also noted that she did not seek medical treatment for her restless nights, nor did she contact the Times directly to ask for a retraction.

“I did not personally reach out to an unfriendly recipient of what I’d be requesting of them. It was common sense. They knew that they were printing an untruth,” she said about her decision.

Writing Mean Things About Politicians Is as American as Apple Pie

As Palin railed against the Times—and “the media” in general, for alleged “untruths”—James Bennet, the ousted Times opinion editor who helped write the sentences at the crux of the libel allegation, sat just feet away. Wearing a dark suit and white face mask, Bennet crossed his arms on the table as he listened to the governor go in on his former employer.

Palin’s testimony—which sparked a lengthy sidebar about her assertions against the media in general—came after the trial was pushed for several days when an unvaccinated Palin tested positive for COVID-19 (and continued to dine at New York City uptown eateries).

Despite Palin’s hours-long testimony on the stand, however, Judge Jed Rakoff ruled that the eight-person jury would not be permitted to award punitive damages to the former governor. Palin has also asked for compensation for damages to her reputation.

“The evidence frankly that Mr. Bennett harbored ill will towards Ms. Palin is quite modest indeed,” Rakoff said.

The June 14, 2017, column at the center of the case was signed by the newspaper’s editorial board, and published just hours after Louisiana Rep. Steve Scalise was wounded when a man opened fire on a congressional baseball practice in Washington. The shooter was later identified as a vehement supporter of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.

On Wednesday, Bennet took the stand to discuss errors in the editorial process that led to the published piece, which was originally drafted by now-reporter Elizabeth Williamson—including how he did not personally conduct any research himself. That may have contributed to the piece wrongly suggesting a map circulated by Palin’s PAC in 2010 had placed crosshairs on individual members of Congress, when in fact they were placed on congressional districts. Crucially, the original editorial said “the link to political incitement was clear” between Palin’s political activities and the shooting.

“This is my fault right? I am the one who wrote those sentences,” Bennet said on Tuesday, explaining that while he started drafting a note at the top of the editorial for Williamson to review, he was concerned about the looming deadline for the print paper—and “began to just edit the piece myself.”

No link was ever found between Palin’s map and Jared Lee Loughner, the Arizona shooter who had mental illness and a long-running fixation on Giffords. But the Times, its lawyer David Axelrod has noted at trial, issued a correction stating it “incorrectly stated that a link existed between political rhetoric and the 2011 shooting” and “incorrectly described” the map.

Still, Palin slammed the Times on Thursday for the corrections that did not mention her by name, saying that she believed their word choice showed that the newspaper “doubled down.”

“It was devastating to read again a false accusation that I had anything to do with murder,” Palin said. “The murder of innocent people.”

Jurors have been tasked with deciding whether Bennet and the Times acted with “actual malice” when they used the disputed wording in the editorial—meaning that the former editor knew what he had written in the piece was false—or that he published the piece with “reckless disregard” for the truth. Palin’s lawyers have argued Times editorial staff actively chose not to fact-check the column’s claims and deliberately fed a narrative they knew to be false about the Republican.

Palin attorney Shane Vogt admitted during opening statements last Thursday that the suit was unlikely to succeed. That is because of decades-old protections for journalists offered in part by a precedent involving the Times: The 1964 New York Times v. Sullivan ruling, which helped establish the actual malice standard.

But media observers have expressed concern that this saga may ultimately dent press freedom if the suit succeeds and then serves to have a chilling effect on journalists scrutinizing public figures

“We come to this case with our eyes wide open and keenly aware of the fact we’re fighting an uphill battle,” Vogt said. “Give us a fair shot. We’re not here trying to win your votes for Governor Palin or any of her policies.”

Axelrod, the lawyer for the Times, noted to jurors during opening arguments that the piece was largely focused on gun laws—not Palin. He argued that Bennett had no malice when he published the piece because he never actually meant to convey that Palin was responsible for the Arizona shooting.

“There is no doubt that the Times made a regrettable error,” Axelrod said, noting they “acted as quickly as possible to correct that mistake.”

Axelrod went on to argue that Palin did not suffer any harm as a result of the Times piece, since she has made a career out of paid speeches and TV appearances, including a stint on The Masked Singer in 2020.

When Axelrod first brought up her 2020 performance, Palin garnered laughter in the courtroom by calling out her own “objection.” While she admitted on Thursday that The Masked Singer “was the most fun 90 seconds of my life,” she said she only called out the legal phrase in jest.

“I thought it was funny,” Palin said while the packed courtroom’s laughter started to fade.

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