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Recovered from Covid, Sarah Palin takes on The New York Times in defamation trial

Attorneys for the former governor of Alaska acknowledged that they face an uphill battle to hold the venerated newspaper liable.

MANHATTAN (CN) — Bringing to a head the nearly five-year saga of litigation that arose from an editorial in The New York Times, former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin’s defamation trial against the paper finally opened Thursday in Manhattan federal court. 

The 2017 opinion piece linked Palin’s political action committee to the Tucson, Arizona, shooting spree six years earlier that injured U.S. Representative Gabby Giffords and killed six people, including a 9-year-old girl and a federal judge. 

Penned on behalf of the Times editorial board, the article titled “America’s Lethal Politics" argued that dangerous political rhetoric was fueling gun violence. It noted that Palin’s organization had published a map before the shooting that put the crosshairs of a rifle scope over the congressional districts of 20 Democrats including that of Giffords. The crosshairs were removed shortly after the murders. 

In its original form, however, the editorial was online for only 12 hours. The updated editorial cut the phrase “Though there’s no sign of incitement as direct as in the Giffords attack,” a correction followed the next day. “An earlier version of this editorial incorrectly stated that a link exited between political incitement and the 2011 shooting of Representative Gabby Giffords," the board wrote. "In fact, no such link was established.”

Palin, now 57, says the correction was not enough. The former vice presidential running mate of the venerated Republican John McCain filed a defamation claim in the Southern District of New York, saying the piece caused serious damage to her reputation. 

“Those words, those very strong words, were hammered home to readers … words like ‘vicious,’ ‘direct’ link, a ‘clear’ link,” attorney Shane B. Vogt said during his opening statement Thursday. 

Vogt, of the Tampa-based law firm Turkel Cuva Barrios, acknowledged the storied history of Palin’s lawsuit: dismissed after U.S. District Judge Jed S. Rakoff found no actual malice on the Times’ part, and later given new life by the Second Circuit. 

“We come into this case with our eyes wide open, and keenly aware of the fact that we’re fighting an uphill battle, in terms of initial reactions of Governor Sarah Palin bringing the libel claim against the New York Times,” Vogt said. 

Palin claims Times used the Tucson shooting “as an artifice to exploit the shooting that occurred on June 14, 2017,” when James Hodgkinson shot up a Virginia baseball practice by congressional Republicans. 

Vogt argued that James Bennet, the editorial page editor at the time who penned the piece, hadn’t conducted appropriate fact-checking because he wanted to spell out a narrative that blamed Palin for the 2011 shooting. 

“Incitement is a very clear word, and Mr. Bennet knew what it meant,” Vogt said. “It is literally his job to know the meaning of words, and he’s going to get up in front of you and say that he didn’t.” 

For its part Thursday, the Times said its editorial criticized both sides of the political spectrum for demonizing their political opponents. 

“This wasn’t a political hit job,” said attorney David L. Axelrod of the Philadelphia firm Ballard Spahr. 

The piece focused on the Virginia shooting and used Palin’s name only once to identify the political action committee that released the map, Axelrod argued. “The Times and Mr. Bennet … failed to appreciate how some readers would interpret two sentences in the middle of that 12-paragraph editorial,” he said. 

Once the author and newspaper realized how it came off to some readers, they began the correction process. 

“We’re sorry about this and we appreciate that our readers called us on the mistake. We’ve corrected the editorial,” the Times tweeted the day after publication. 

Palin herself is expected to testify at the trial, which Judge Rakoff said won’t last longer than two weeks. 

Almost half a decade after its filing, the latest delay was because Palin, adamantly unvaccinated, tested positive for Covid-19 the day before her trial was set to begin. She entered court on Thursday saying she felt great and hadn’t experienced any symptoms.

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