Sarah Palin’s libel suit against The New York Times went to trial Thursday in a case over the former Alaska governor’s claims the newspaper damaged her reputation with an editorial linking her campaign rhetoric to a mass shooting.
The trial is a rare example of a jury deciding the validity of a persistent refrain from Palin and other Republicans: That a biased news media is willing to bend the truth to make conservatives look bad.
Palin, a onetime Republican vice presidential nominee, told journalists as she arrived at the courthouse that she was looking for “justice for people who expect truth in the media.”
A lawyer for The Times, David Axelrod, told jurors the editorial was primarily about gun laws, not Palin, and was not a “political hit job.”
Opening statements to the jury were initially scheduled for last week, but were postponed when Palin tested positive for COVID-19.
The trial is happening on The Times’ home turf, in Democrat-friendly New York City, but Palin attorney Shane Vogt asked jurors in his opening statement to put aside any personal opinions they might have about Palin’s politics.
“We come to this case with our eyes wide open and keenly aware of the fact we’re fighting an uphill battle,” Vogt said. “Give us a fair shot. We’re not here trying to win your votes for Governor Palin or any of her policies.”
Palin will be the trial’s star witness. She’s seeking unspecified damages.
Axelrod, an attorney for the Times, acknowledged the newspaper made a factual mistake in the editorial, but said it was not malicious and the paper “acted as quickly as possible to correct that mistake.”
Palin sued the Times in 2017, accusing it of damaging her career as a political commentator with an editorial about gun control published after U.S. Rep. Steve Scalise, a Louisiana Republican, was wounded when a man with a history of anti-GOP activity opened fire on a Congressional baseball team practice in Washington.
In the editorial, the Times wrote that before the 2011 mass shooting in Arizona that severely wounded former U.S. Rep. Gabby Giffords and killed six others, Palin’s political action committee had contributed to an atmosphere of violence by circulating a map of electoral districts that put Giffords and 19 other Democrats under stylized crosshairs.
In a correction two days later, The Times said the editorial had “incorrectly stated that a link existed between political rhetoric and the 2011 shooting” and that it had “incorrectly described” the map.
The disputed wording had been added to the editorial by James Bennet, then the editorial page editor. At trial, the jury would have to decide whether he acted with “actual malice,” meaning he knew what he wrote was false, or with “reckless disregard” for the truth.
Bennet has said he believed the editorial was accurate when it was published.
A judge put off the trial last week to give an unvaccinated Palin time to get over any possible COVID-19 symptoms. Away from court, she caused a stir by being sighted dining out in Manhattan after her positive test results were made public.
Palin, 57, has publicly said she won’t get the vaccine.