Sarah Palin takes on the New York Times in newsroom showdown

The trial centers on a 2017 editorial that falsely linked Palin’s ads to a mass shooting.

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Gary Miller/FilmMagic

By Neal Freyman | Morning Brew

A blockbuster First Amendment trial that pits former Alaska governor and VP nominee Sarah Palin against the US’ most iconic news source, the New York Times, will begin today.

The backstory

In 2017, following a shooting at a practice session for the Congressional Baseball Game for Charity, the NYT ran an editorial that established a connection between an ad produced by Sarah Palin’s political action committee (PAC) and another mass shooting, one in Arizona in 2011 that killed six and wounded Democratic Congresswoman Gabby Giffords. “The link to political incitement was clear,” the editorial board wrote.

That, plus another assertion that Palin’s PAC circulated a map that put Giffords and 19 other Dems under stylized crosshairs, was just not true. The NYT quickly issued corrections and tweeted an apology—but didn’t mention Palin.

Palin sued the paper less than two weeks later, accusing it of defaming her and seeking unspecified damages. The suit was originally dismissed but was revived later by an appeals court.

How the trial will play out

Palin will have an uphill battle to victory. As a public figure, she’ll have to prove that the NYT acted with “actual malice” in publishing the editorial—that is, that it knowingly meant to harm Palin with the falsehoods or included the falsehoods with “reckless disregard.”

  • That “actual malice” standard was established in 1964, in a Supreme Court ruling that also involved the Times.

The NYT has said it was an honest mistake. As a spokesperson told CNN, “We are deeply committed to fairness and accuracy in our journalism, and when we fall short, we correct our errors publicly, as we did in this case.”

Still, the trial may be embarrassing to the NYT for exposing sloppy editing practices ahead of tight deadlines. In the case of this editorial, the then-editor of the Times editorial board, James Bennet, inserted the false passages at the last minute after being unsatisfied with a draft from the actual author of the column, Elizabeth Williamson.

Bottom line: “The case will help demarcate the line between really bad journalism and libelous journalism,” the Washington Post’s Erik Wemple wrote.

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