It was an uneasy day for The New York Times on Tuesday as lawyers for Sarah Palin grilled the main witness during the fourth day of her defamation trial against the newspaper. Jurors learned just how irresponsible and reckless the editorial page of the Times is.
There’s no dispute that the 2017 editorial blaming Palin for the shooting of Rep. Gabby Giffords in 2011 was wrong and a colossal screw-up. The newspaper readily admits that. But the Times claims it was just an “honest mistake.” The evidence suggests otherwise.
The offending language was inserted at the last minute by James Bennet, who was head of the editorial page. He wrote that “the link to political incitement was clear” —that is, a map targeting districts held by Democrats sent out by Palin’s political action committee caused the shooting. But it was absolutely untrue. There was no proven link. Just the opposite. It was debunked long ago.
Palin and her attorneys argue that Bennet is vastly experienced and had to have known that what he wrote was false. As a public figure, Palin must prove “actual malice” under the landmark 1964 New York Times v. Sullivan standard, meaning that the Times knew that it was false or recklessly disregarded the truth.
Bennet’s testimony conceded four facts which could prove pivotal:
1. He added the incendiary language all on his own with no real evidence to justify it.
2. He blamed his error on “deadline pressure,” but there was no vetting or fact-checking. None.
3. When confronted with his mistake, he refused to take down the published editorial because the Times has a policy against that.
4. He never apologized to readers or Palin…because apologies are “painful” for journalists. Seriously, he said that.
All of these things may add up to “actual malice.” When he deployed his smear, Bennet was trying to be edgy and make a splash. But to do that, he knowingly invented a regrettable lie, alleges the plaintiff.
Had he done his homework, Bennet would have known that investigators found no link between Palin and the shooting of Giffords. The shooter was mentally ill and had never seen the political map. This was widely known and reported. If Bennet knew it, he ignored it —likely because he had a political agenda.
Palin has vowed that if she loses her lawsuit, she’ll pursue the case to the U.S. Supreme Court. That is good news. This may be the case that finally overturns the tortured rationale behind the Sullivan decision of nearly 60 years ago.
Justice Clarence Thomas is on record stating that the high court back then simply conjured up the “actual malice” doctrine out of thin air…and there is no basis for it in the First or Fourteenth Amendments. Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote that Sullivan created “an ironclad subsidy for the publication of falsehoods.”
They’re both right. The Sullivan case was always an incomprehensible decision. It needs to be dismantled once and for all.