Sarah Palin said at her defamation trial against the New York Times that she felt “powerless” after the newspaper published a 2017 editorial that incorrectly linked the former Alaska governor and 2008 Republican US vice presidential candidate to a mass shooting six years earlier.
On the sixth day of the trial in Manhattan federal court, Palin told jurors that she was “mortified” after the Times appeared to connect her to having incited the murder of innocent people.
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The 57-year-old Republican accused the Times of “trying to score political points”, calling the newspaper “the be-all, end-all, the loud voice in American media” and likening it to the biblical figure Goliath and herself to David.
“It was devastating to read, again, an accusation, a false accusation that I had anything to do with murder, murdering innocent people,” Palin said. “And I felt powerless.”
Palin also took the witness stand briefly on Wednesday, following testimony across two days by James Bennet, a former Times editorial page editor and also a defendant in the lawsuit.
Bennet said he never intended to blame Palin or her political action committee in the disputed editorial, headlined “America’s Lethal Politics,” which addressed gun control and the growth of incendiary political rhetoric.
The June 14, 2017, editorial was written after a shooting at a congressional baseball team practice at a field in Virginia where Republican US congressman Steve Scalise was wounded. It referred to the January 2011 shooting in an Arizona parking lot by gunman Jared Lee Loughner where six people were killed and then-Democratic US congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was seriously wounded.
Bennet added language that drew a link between the Giffords shooting and a map circulated earlier by Palin’s political action committee that put Giffords and 19 other Democrats under “cross hairs”.
He told jurors that he did not intend to blame Palin or harm her reputation, when under deadline pressure he added the phrase “the link to political incitement was clear” to the editorial.
There is no evidence Loughner had a political motive and the Times corrected the editorial the next day.
Palin has said she believes the correction did not go far enough, and noted that it did not name her.
Palin faces a high legal bar to win in a trial that tests longstanding legal protections for US media against defamation claims by public figures.
She must convince jurors that the Times and Bennet acted with “actual malice”, meaning they knew the editorial was false or had reckless disregard for the truth. Palin must also prove her case with clear and convincing evidence, a higher standard than often used in civil cases.
Under cross-examination by the Times lawyer David Axelrod, Palin acknowledged that the symbols on the map look like cross hairs, but also resembled surveyor markings.
Asked if she endorsed the map, she said, “It has my name on it, so yes.”
The Times has also tried to show that Palin suffered no harm. Axelrod asked many questions to show Palin retained a prominent public profile and had multiple sources of income, including from four books.
Under questioning from her own lawyer Kenneth Turkel, Palin said the editorial nonetheless caused her suffering.
“It’s hard to lay your head on a pillow and have a restful night when you know that lies are told about you, a specific lie that was not going to be fixed,” Palin said. “That causes some stress anyone would feel.”
Palin also said she and her family in 2011 received death threats after people including the media started wrongly connecting her to the Arizona attack, but did not sue because she wanted to focus on victims and not politicise the tragedy.
Asked if she was used to such threats, Palin said, “Every day, but it comes with the territory.”
Palin has signalled that if she loses at trial, she will on appeal challenge New York Times v Sullivan, the 1964 US Supreme Court decision that established the actual malice standard.
The trial had been delayed for one and a half weeks because Palin tested positive for COVID-19. She has said she will not be vaccinated against COVID-19. Palin removed her white face mask before testifying, and like other witnesses, testified behind a plexiglass shield.