But first, a proper reintroduction:
Palin, of course, is the once very-famous former superstar Republican governor of Alaska who became the vice-presidential running mate of John McCain in 2008. In the years since, Palin has receded somewhat from public view, but she’s still a media magnet. Whether contemplating another run for office, mediating brawlers (her own family) or rapping on “The Masked Singer” dressed as a bear, she’s catnip to reporters and photographers.
Thus, the past few weeks, Palin has been everywhere in the news, not least because her trial date had to be postponed when she tested positive for the coronavirus. U.S. District Court Judge Jed S. Rakoff told the courtroom, “She is, of course, unvaccinated.” Later, Palin was captured on camera eating inside a restaurant among other diners despite her diagnosis. During her two-week “quarantine,” she and her “buddy,” former New York Rangers star Ron Duguay, continued to be spotted around town.
Palin is still famous, in other words, which is a crucial factor in libel cases. It’s harder to be a libel victim if you’re a public figure, you see.
The woman who wowed the 2008 Republican National Convention by comparing herself to a pit bull with lipstick surely can’t expect to be forgotten so soon.
Improbably, Palin claimed that she was “powerless” when the Times published an editorial after a 2017 shooting at a Congressional Baseball Game practice. The editorial referenced the Arizona shooting six years earlier that killed six and wounded 13, including Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.), and it inaccurately connected Palin’s rhetoric to that shooting. This same erroneous connection was made by other critics at the time of the shootings because of a campaign map created by Palin’s political action committee that had targeted Giffords’s district with symbols resembling gun sights.
The map was a terrible but not uncommon tactic in our politics. One targets opponents without intending that anyone actually shoot them, for heaven’s sake. The fact that Palin is a gun-totin,’ moose-huntin’ maverick is not some dog whistle to fans to take violent action. That’s why the Times issued an immediate correction.
One can understand why Palin was “mortified” by the Times editorial, and she filed suit two weeks after the piece appeared. But people have said and written much worse about public figures. A factual error must be corrected, and this one was. Even opinions, though afforded greater latitude under the law, need to be based on truth. We may not like another’s point of view, but criticism is the small price we pay for freedom.
Palin’s case swivels on two questions crucial to such claims of libel: Was Times editor James Bennet operating out of malice; and did Palin suffer as a result? Both questions are tied to whether Palin’s public profile means she’s fair game for an editorialist (or columnist), or whether she’s a maliciously maligned private citizen.
To establish herself as a victim, Palin tried to suggest she was a has-been by 2017, going “up against those who buy ink by the barrel and I had my No. 2 pencil on my kitchen table.” This is laughable, given her well-publicized history of multimillion-dollar TV and book contracts, speaking gigs and red carpets. Yes, her star has faded a little, but you wouldn’t guess it from recent coverage.
That Bennet was writing out of malice seems a stretch. There’s no evidence to support such a claim. As for tribulations, look to Bennet not Palin, who wasn’t able to demonstrate much suffering as a result of the Times’ error in her testimony, reputational or otherwise.
Jurors, nevertheless, might relate more to Palin than the powerful Times, depending on their attitudes toward the media generally and their misunderstanding of the dire consequences should Palin succeed in her mission of weakening a free press. Let’s hope they’re not fooled by the bright smile and cute deflections.
Like Lewinsky, who still fascinates the media, Palin has never been just a mom in Wasilla wielding a No. 2 pencil. She might not be able to recite Supreme Court rulings, but she can size up a foe with the skill of a hunter who field dresses her own moose.
If only she understood that her victory would mean handing a shield to the powerful against scrutiny by and for the people, the very ones she once hoped to represent.