Sarah Palin goes to trial against 'New York Times' in test for media

Former Alaska governor expected to be star witness in case that could test long-standing protections for US news media

Former Alaska governor Sarah Palin arrives at US federal court for the first day of her defamation suit against 'The New York Times'. EPA
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Former Republican US vice presidential candidate and Alaska governor Sarah Palin went to trial against The New York Times on Thursday in a highly anticipated defamation case that could test long-standing protections for American news media.

Ms Palin is suing over a 2017 editorial linking her political rhetoric to a 2011 Arizona mass shooting that left six dead and US Representative Gabby Giffords seriously wounded, which the newspaper later corrected.

In his opening statement, Ms Palin's lawyer, Shane Vogt, told jurors his client was fighting an “uphill battle” as she tries to show the editorial reflected the Times' disregard of the facts and “history of bias” towards her and other Republicans.

The Times' lawyer, David Axelrod, countered in his opening statement that the editorial sought to hold both Democrats and Republicans responsible for inflammatory rhetoric and said the newspaper acted “as quickly as possible” to correct its mistake.

The trial could prove to be a test of the US Supreme Court's 1964 decision in New York Times v Sullivan, which made it difficult for public figures like Ms Palin to prove defamation.

To win, Ms Palin must offer clear and convincing evidence the Times acted with “actual malice”, meaning it knew the editorial was false or had reckless disregard for the truth. She is seeking unspecified damages for reported harm to her reputation.

“What am I trying to accomplish? Justice for people who expect the truth in the media,” Ms Palin told reporters as she entered the Manhattan federal courthouse.

Headlined “America's Lethal Politics”, the disputed June 14, 2017, editorial was published after a shooting in Alexandria, Virginia, in which Steve Scalise, a member of the House of Representatives' Republican leadership, was wounded.

The editorial questioned whether the shooting reflected how vicious American politics had become.

It then said “the link to political incitement was clear” when Jared Lee Loughner opened fire in the 2011 shooting after Ms Palin's political action committee had circulated a map putting Ms Giffords and 19 other Democrats under “stylised cross hairs".

Former editorial page editor James Bennet, who is also named in the suit, had added the disputed wording to a draft prepared by a colleague.

Ms Palin's lawyer Mr Vogt said “we are not here trying to win your votes for Governor Palin or any of her policies” but instead wanted the Times found liable for a “particularly horrific and debunked” editorial.

He portrayed Mr Bennet as a “highly educated career journalist” who knew the words he added were false, yet did not change them.

“He had his narrative, and he stuck to it,” Mr Vogt said.

But Mr Axelrod said Mr Bennet did not intend to suggest that Mr Loughner acted because of Ms Palin, or that readers inferred a link, and that Mr Bennet would give evidence about “exactly what he meant".

Mr Axelrod also said no one at the Times harboured ill will towards Ms Palin and the dispute concerned a mere two sentences in a 12-paragraph editorial.

The Times has not suffered a loss in a defamation case in more than half a century.

Updated: June 21, 2023, 7:29 AM