Rarely do you see a court case with a title as tasty as the one that’s coming on Feb. 1 in federal district court right here in Manhattan: Grab your popcorn for Palin v. New York Times.
Unlike, say, Batman v. Commissioner (1950, federal tax court), however, this one is about exactly who you think it’s about. Fun!
But this trial is not only entertaining, it will address an important principle: you don’t get to make up nasty stuff about somebody you don’t like and print it anyway. Reminding us that there is punishment in store for those who do this could move us a half-a-baby-step closer to restoring civility in the discourse.
After a madman shot Congresswoman Gabby Giffords in Arizona in 2011, when Sarah Palin was the most despised woman in America on the left because of her merciless and effective put-downs of Barack Obama three years earlier, lefty pundits were desperate to find some way, however far-fetched, to link the shooting to her. They tried to make a banquet out of a crumb: they discovered Palin’s PAC had put out a map about defeating Obamacare that was illustrated with crosshairs to identify congressional districts as potential pickups for the GOP. “Target,” “campaign,” “crosshairs” and the like are long-standing military metaphors used in election battles. (Battles. There’s another one.) Nobody goes, “Aaaaaugh, you’re trying to get me killed!” when a press release mentions that this or that incumbent is being “targeted.”
Did Giffords’ shooter ever see this map? No, not that we know of. Moreover, he had no clear political views. Instead, he simply harbored an obsessive hate for Giffords specifically, which was documented back to three years before the map’s existence. Three days after the shooting, Washington Post fact checker Glenn Kessler wrote, “The charge that Palin’s map had anything to do with the shooting is bogus.”
Yet six years later, after a far-left Bernie Sanders-loving terrorist shot and nearly killed Republican Congressman Steve Scalise on a Virginia baseball field, the Times tried to change the subject back to the Giffords shooting to deflect blame from the left. Its unsigned editorial of June 14, 2017, stated that in the Giffords attack, “the link to political incitement was clear. Before the shooting, Sarah Palin’s political action committee circulated a map of targeted electoral districts” and claimed that the Scalise shooting showed “no sign of incitement as direct as in the Giffords attack.”
Awful stuff, and completely untrue, as the Times acknowledged in a corrective note: “In fact, no such link was established.” Much less a “direct” or “clear” one. The whole Palin link was simply made up because the left hates her, and the Times editorial board stepped in a mess out on Bullspit Boulevard.
“I’ll sue you for libel, you ink-stained bastard!” is the kind of idle threat heard by every reporter six times a day before lunch. No, you probably won’t! And if you do, I like my chances. American libel law strongly favors the press rather than the people we write about, and for excellent reason. Opinions, even extremely nasty ones, are protected. Hurrah! What a dim, gray, Soviet-scented discourse we’d have in this country if it were otherwise. Also, the media can be forgiven for honest mistakes. Believe it or not, “We’re too dumb to know what we said was false” is a legit defense.
It’s pretty hard to lose a libel case, but the Times has put itself in a dicey spot. The Times smeared Palin, plain and simple. They thought they’d get away with it because Palin is a public figure, and the national press has been unloading on her since the day John McCain picked her to be his running mate. But Palin’s lawyers are the ones who trounced Gawker so badly in the Hulk Hogan case that the site went under.
If I were the Times, I’d be looking forward to this trial about as much as you would spending winter in Juneau.