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Sarah Palin tells jurors New York Times lies and capitalizes on ‘horrific violence’

The onetime “maverick” vice presidential candidate testified Thursday morning that she was “mortified” by a 2017 Times editorial that linked her to a mass shooting in Tucson, Ariz.

MANHATTAN (CN) — Former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin called herself a modern-day David challenging The New York Times’ Goliath as she took the witness stand on Thursday morning to hold the famed newspaper liable for defamation.

“Here I was in Wasilla, Alaska, up against those who buy ink by the barrel, here I was with my No. 2 pencil,” she testified in Manhattan federal court on the trial’s sixth day, invoking words by William Greener, assistant secretary of defense in the Ford administration, that are sometimes mistakenly attributed to Mark Twain.

Palin sued the Times after her name appeared in a June 14, 2017, article the Times editorial board published the evening after a shooting had broken out at a congressional baseball practice.

Titled “America’s Lethal Politics,” the editorial connected the nation’s pattern of mass shootings to overheated political rhetoric, citing as one example the 2011 shooting in Tucson, Ariz., that left a federal judge and five others people dead at a Congress on Your Corner event hosted by the newly inducted Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. Palin’s political action committee previously published a map that put crosshairs over Giffords’ electoral district, and the Times called this a ”direct” link to the violence that ensued.

An editor removed the language and published a correction the next day, but those steps were not enough for Palin, who says she never got an apology.

Palin’s civil trial in the Southern District of New York, seeking damages for reputational harm, is a stress test of long-established legal protections that protect American media against defamation claims by public figures.

In New York Times v. Sullivan, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1964 that the First Amendment protects statements about public figures, including false ones, unless officials can prove actual malice.

U.S. District Judge Jed Rakoff had initially dismissed Palin’s case for failing to identify any individual at The New York Times who allegedly acted with actual malice, but the Second Circuit revived the former Alaska governor’s lawsuit last year. 

Sporting her signature teased bouffant hairdo and a white jacket over a black dress on Thursday, Palin testified that she was “mortified” by the Times editorial linking her to the Tucson killings because she was “familiar with what the power of the pen could do."

“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,” she testified. “So yeah, tough to get a good night's sleep.”

Palin said she was no stranger to hate mail and death threats as a figure in American politics but could not recall specific examples of media figures provoking such blowback when New York Times’ outside counsel David Axelrod pressed her on cross-examination: “Are you aware of any journalist or pundit that said, ‘go out and hunt Sarah Palin because of the crosshairs map?’”

“Yes,” Palin responded, but then faltered to call up a name. “I don’t have it in front of me,” she testified. “I have years of that kind of graphic language or statement, the death threats.”

Palin, whose 58th birthday is on Friday, arrived to the Manhattan federal courthouse this morning accompanied by rumored beau, retired New York Rangers hockey star Ron Duguay.

She began her direct witness testimony briefly on Wednesday afternoon with 13 minutes of testimony where Palin recited a quaint, biographical background that established her as maternal and a proud Alaskan.

Across two days of testimony starting Tuesday, former New York Times Opinion editor James Bennet acknowledged that he had made mistake in his rewrite of “America’s Lethal Politics,” by inserting the statement “the link to political incitement was clear” into the original draft penned by Elizabeth Williamson. A correction noting “no such link was established” appeared in less than 24 hours.

“We are human beings. We do make mistakes. There’s a reason there’s a corrections box in the newspaper,” he said Wednesday morning during questioning by New York Times attorney David Axelrod. “It happens.”

Palin has termed Axelrod’s correction and another that the newspaper made “woefully insufficient," and questions the failure to retract the piece.

“Nothing changed, they doubled down,” she testified on Thursday, noting that the correction did not mention her name.

Palin’s defense characterized Bennet in her amended complaint as “an ardent gun-control advocate who harbors deep-seeded resentment and animus toward Gov. Palin and her political views.”

During a second bout of cross-examination on Wednesday, Bennet testified he hadn't apologized to Palin directly because she is suing him and the Times. "If I were her in those conditions, I wouldn't think the apology was being offered in good faith."

Palin’s lawsuit does not seek recovery of lost income, but claims she is entitled to at least $75,000 compensatory, special and punitive damages “for the cost of repairing her reputation and/or the cost of correcting the defamatory statement.”

The New York Times is expect to rest its defense without calling any witnesses, and closing summation arguments are scheduled for Friday, Feb. 11.

Throughout his 2016 presidential campaign, former president Donald Trump vowed to "open up" libel laws and make it easier to seek damages from journalists in response to negative media coverage. Ultimately, though, he did not change federal defamation laws during his presidency.

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