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Sarah Palin testifies she felt powerless to fight 'New York Times' over editorial

Former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin arrives at a federal court in Manhattan to testify in her defamation case against the <em>New York Times</em>. Palin claims that an editorial in the <em>Times</em> damaged a career as a conservative political commentator. The newspaper corrected the editorial twice within a day.
Spencer Platt
Getty Images
Former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin arrives at a federal court in Manhattan to testify in her defamation case against the New York Times. Palin claims that an editorial in the Times damaged a career as a conservative political commentator. The newspaper corrected the editorial twice within a day.

Sarah Palin finally got her day in court against an avatar of the mainstream media that she has so often assailed: The New York Times.

During testimony Thursday that lasted several hours, Palin characterized The Times as a Goliath against which she felt powerless. She testified that she had trouble sleeping after the publication of a June 2017 editorial that falsely claimed a clear link between an ad from her political action committee and a deadly mass shooting that grievously wounded a Democratic congresswoman years earlier.

"It's hard to lay your head on a pillow and have a restful night when you know that lies are told about you, a specific lie that was not going to be fixed," Palin testified. "That causes some stress anyone would feel."

Palin filed the lawsuit against the Times shortly after the editorial's publication, alleging that the newspaper had defamed her. She had waited more than four years to take the stand, as the case wound its way through the court system.

Gingerly walked through her biography by her attorney, Palin presented herself to the jury as a single mom and grandmother, largely retired from politics and living in her hometown of Wasilla, Alaska. Her life, she described it, was a far cry from the one she led as a crusading Republican governor and then as John McCain's running mate in their unsuccessful 2008 bid for the White House.

In March 2010, Palin's political action committee targeted U.S. Rep. Gabby Giffords of Arizona and more than a dozen other Democratic lawmakers for defeat. The PAC's ad placed stylized crosshairs over their congressional districts. Giffords was among those at the time who raised objections to the ad, suggesting it contained violent political symbolism. Palin shrugged off the criticism.

The following year, a shooter in Tucson killed six people and wounded more than a dozen more, including Giffords. Palin fended off a fresh crop of criticism for feeding into a climate of violence, but no evidence was found that the shooter was even aware of Palin's ad. Palin denounced her detractors for making political points out of tragedy.

In June 2017, after Republican Rep. Steve Scalise of Louisiana was shot at a congressional baseball practice, the Times posted an editorial making a sweeping argument about the need for stronger gun control and for ratcheting down the temperature of political rhetoric.

In fateful lines inserted into the piece by the paper's then editorial page editor, James Bennet, the Times asserted there was a clear link between the ad from the Palin PAC and the mass shooting the following year. And he also wrongly made it seem as though the graphic targeted the lawmakers rather than their districts.

"The link to political incitement was clear," the editorial originally stated. After objections from a conservative Times columnist and an outcry online, the Times removed that line and corrected the post twice within a day.

Palin struggles to demonstrate Times editorial caused her harm

Over the course of her testimony, Palin made it plain the Times editorial's false claims had resurrected that painful period for her. And she characterized them as a political attack.

Yet Palin was a less-than-commanding witness under cross-examination by David Axelrod, the Times' lead trial attorney (and not the adviser to President Barack Obama of the same name).

Despite the pain she says she felt upon learning of and reading the editorial, Palin conceded she could not recall speaking about the editorial to the people closest to her: not to her parents, her sisters, or her brother. In earlier sworn testimony, Palin also said she believed she had not talked about it with her children. She could not identify a job or contract she lost, a political candidate who shied away from her, or a former friend who shunned her as a result of the Times editorial. Palin testified that death threats ramped up after the 2011 Gabby Giffords shooting, but she did not cite any such fallout from the editorial years later.

It was as though Axelrod was preparing to challenge how significant a harm the editorial really caused. And he also challenged her image as a private citizen living a cloistered life. Under questioning, Palin acknowledged giving talks to prominent conservative groups in recent years, starring and appearing in reality shows, and speaking out on Fox News and other outlets. He noted she had 1.3 million followers on Twitter. She also acknowledged publicly "leaving the door open" to another run for political office, including the U.S. Senate as recently as last year.

Palin's attorneys argued that Bennet's errant writings were motivated by political animus; they unsuccessfully sought to bring up his campaigning in 2010 for a few weeks for his brother, Democratic U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado, and some essays critical of Palin posted on sites associated with the Atlantic when Bennet served as the magazine's editor. The claim of a motivation of hostility toward Palin was undercut by testimony and contemporaneous texts and emails from numerous Times journalists involved with the piece that reflected their surprise and anguish over the mistakes — Bennet among them.

To win, Palin must prove the Times acted with 'actual malice,' a high bar

There are significant free speech protections in legal precedent to give journalists and other citizens running room to scrutinize public figures. To win, Palin's legal team must convince jurors that the Times and Bennet acted with "actual malice" — a legal standard that they knew the information they provided was false or acted with such reckless disregard that they should have known.

U.S. Judge Jed Rakoff, who is presiding over the trial, made clear that Palin has to surmount a tough legal challenge in this case. And he dismissed the idea that her lawyers could make the case for punitive damages. "The evidence, frankly, that Mr. Bennet harbored ill will toward Ms. Palin is quite modest indeed," Rakoff told lawyers after dismissing jurors for the day.

And Palin appeared to get twisted up when asked about her own statement a few days after the Tuscon shooting in 2011, in which she warned journalists against "a blood libel that serves only to incite the very hatred and violence they purport to condemn." Axelrod asked her repeatedly what she meant about journalists inciting violence; Palin had trouble offering a plain answer, saying she was offering a warning.

(Palin's use of the term "blood libel" sparked an instant outcry as well. The language invokes a centuries-old slander against Jews claiming they used the blood of Christian children to make Passover matzoh.) "I did not expect that somebody would take such issue with it," Palin testified Thursday.

Though her trademark chipperness peeked through at times, she seemed a subdued echo of her more familiar self.

In some ways, her emergence on the American political scene foreshadowed the rise of Donald Trump. She appealed to Barack Obama's detractors and served as a frequent critic of the press, which she called "the lamestream media."

Yet she is one of at least three major-party candidates for national office who got their start in journalism: President Warren Harding was the editor of the Marion (Ohio) Daily Star and Vice President Al Gore was a reporter for the Nashville Tennessean. Palin majored in journalism at the University of Idaho and covered sports for a local TV station in Alaska.

Asked about the various reality shows that she has participated in since leaving elective office, Palin said, "It paid some bills." Her appearance on Fox's The Masked Singer, she said, was "the most fun 90 seconds of my life."

Closing arguments are scheduled to begin Friday morning.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

David Folkenflik was described by Geraldo Rivera of Fox News as "a really weak-kneed, backstabbing, sweaty-palmed reporter." Others have been kinder. The Columbia Journalism Review, for example, once gave him a "laurel" for reporting that immediately led the U.S. military to institute safety measures for journalists in Baghdad.