Monday, January 30

OPINION: In the crosshairs: On Sarah Palin’s suit against the New York Times


Sarah Palin’s libel suit against The New York Times ended suddenly this week while a Manhattan jury remained deliberating. Judge Jed Rakoff said he would dismiss the suit, explaining that plaintiff Palin failed to show “actual malice” on the Times’ part, as required by libel law. A day later, jurors came to the same conclusion.

No doubt many readers followed the high-profile trial, in which Palin sued the Times for a 2017 editorial in which she was treated badly — how badly, was the issue.

I had been following the trial, too. But a friend of mine tipped me off that the federal court had posted a call-in number that allowed callers to listen in live. I listened, but not to the entire trial. I had numerous interruptions, including when my furnace quit, a common enough Alaska emergency.

Audio certainly allows you to follow events and provides a sense of the lawyers’ approaches and skills, but without video, the voices are faceless. This seems like Old Tech, reminiscent of the 1950s, when in Alaska, live Major League Baseball games were only on radio.

I heard Palin’s lawyers examine her. She seemed far more polished and composed than when I interviewed her years ago on radio. But she should be — she has had a lot of practice since she was the GOP’s vice-presidential nominee in 2008.

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Basically, her lawyers contended she had become a humble Wasilla homemaker in recent years — and that’s who she was in 2017, when the Times falsely linked her to a 2011 mass shooting in Arizona in which six people were killed and then-Rep. Gabrielle Giffords horrendously injured. Palin came to the Times’ attention because her political action committee had circulated “a stylized crosshairs over the election districts of Giffords and 19 other Democrats,” as the Associated Press put it. As if the crosshairs had somehow incited the shooter.

The Times replied that James Bennet, NYT editorial page editor in 2017, should not have made mention of the crosshairs — but this was an honest mistake. There was no malice, no desire to harm. The Times further argued Palin could not prove financial damages or emotional damages beyond occasional discomfort at feeling unjustly accused, so she was not entitled to a financial judgment — a check from the Times.

During the breaks, my mind drifted back to my own experience with the word “libel.” I remembered my old boss Howard Weaver’s warning, “If you don’t want to be sued, be careful.” The Times was not careful. Unsurprisingly, the material deemed libelous was inserted by Bennet at the last moment. Bennet, and other editors, invoked “deadline pressure,” but nobody explained why the editorial had to run in hours.

As editorial page editor for the ADN, I took a number of calls from readers who threatened to sue me for libel — or, even more frequently, from those threatening to sue for “liable.” Many callers were angry at the way they had been portrayed in a story — or had received incoming from their spouse after their name appeared in the paper. Others were infuriated because the News — me or someone who worked for me — had cut their letter to the editor, removing “the best part.”

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I found that once people vented, they began to listen to my explanation of what the paper did and why. They calmed down. Palin’s lawyers made much of the failure of the Times to call her.

Yes, and there were times I authored or approved corrections — or what the Palin lawyers called, in their case, “so-called corrections.” One of mine involved two neighbors, one of whom ate the other’s cat. We got the cat owner and the cat eater backward.

At one point, Mitch Abood, then a state senator, threatened to sue me, and his letter, from a prominent attorney, really got me anxious because I was so new to the job. Mitch, lawyer Wayne Anthony Ross, and I eventually worked things out and became friendly. When Wayne wrote his memoirs, I was one of his editors.

This kind of exchange, starting at high volume and ending in a handshake, happens in small and medium-sized towns. Call up the Times and threaten “libel” — or liable — and see if anyone answers the phone. If you write them, make sure you do so on law-firm letterhead.

About that “stylized crosshairs,” the one created by Palin’s PAC that put then-Rep. Giffords’ district in the crosshairs: I had my own crosshairs experience.

Craig Medred was a strong writer for the ADN with an equally strong persona, and he often drew readers’ ire for his outdoor columns. He drew so much comment on the letters page that artist Peter Dunlap-Shohl created his own logo for him — Craig in the crosshairs of a rifle scope. No question, the man in the caricature was Craig.

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The crosshairs caricature appeared with letters many times. It never occurred to me that anyone would take this piece of art literally and get the impulse to actually put Craig in the crosshairs. But after a couple of years, Craig asked me to drop the crosshairs. He didn’t feel threatened but he was uncomfortable. I resisted him at first, but then thought, “OK, he’s got a point. Besides, the crosshairs has been around so long it is stale.”

I took the crosshairs logo home and kept it as a souvenir. I probably should have given it to Craig.

Michael Carey is an occasional columnist and the former editorial page editor of the Anchorage Daily News.

The views expressed here are the writer’s and are not necessarily endorsed by the Anchorage Daily News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)adn.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to [email protected] or click here to submit via any web browser. Read our full guidelines for letters and commentaries here.



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