The New York Times was sloppy and wrong, but it wasn’t malicious when it ran an editorial tying former GOP vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin to the 2011 shooting of a Democratic congresswoman, a federal judge ruled Tuesday.
“Mistakes will be made,” U.S. District Judge Jed S. Rakoff said, adding that because the Times quickly changed its editorial and ran multiple corrections, the newspaper proved it was trying to get it right.
The editorial, printed after a left-wing zealot attempted to massacre Republican members of Congress practicing baseball in June, said Mrs. Palin helped incite the 2011 shooting of then-Rep. Gabby Giffords. The Times pointed to a map circulated by Mrs. Palin’s political action committee targeting congressional districts — including Ms. Giffords’ — as lawmakers who should be ousted.
Judge Rakoff said the Times drew a direct link between the PAC’s map, and left readers with the impression Mrs. Palin was personally responsible for it. But the judge said there was no evidence the statement was made with prior knowledge that it was false, or with reckless disregard for the truth.
Public figures have a tougher bar to prove libel than most. They must show that a statement was inaccurate and made with “actual malice,” meaning the Times needed to know it was printing false information or was reckless in ignoring the truth.
“Supposed research failures do not constitute clear and convincing evidence of actual malice, even of the ‘reckless’ kind,” Judge Rakoff wrote.
He said political journalism is “rowdy,” and mistakes will happen, “some of which will be hurtful to others.”
But he dismissed Mrs. Palin’s argument that the Times has had it in for her, saying that political disagreements don’t rise to the level of animosity that would show maliciousness.
The Times piece was originally written by editorial writer Elizabeth Williamson. When she proposed the idea, she was told by editorial page editor James Bennet — brother of U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, Colorado Democrat — to go back and look at the 2011 shooting before writing on this year’s attack.
Ms. Williamson’s draft didn’t draw an explicit connection. She wrote: “Then, it was the pro-gun right being criticized: in the weeks before the shooting Sarah Palin’s political action committee circulated a map of targeted electoral districts that put Ms. Giffords and 19 other Democrats under stylized crosshairs.”
Mr. Bennet rewrote Ms. Williamson’s piece, adding a direct inference that Mrs. Palin’s PAC was responsible for “direct” incitement of the Giffords attack.
The Times’ own reporting had previously discounted any connection between the map and the 2011 shooting by a mentally deranged man with no discernible political motive.
After receiving complaints, the editor twice corrected the editorial both online and in print to reflect the omission.
“Such behavior is much more plausibly consistent with making an unintended mistake and then correcting it than with acting with actual malice,” the judge ruled.
The judge dismissed Mrs. Palin’s lawsuit with prejudice, meaning she cannot refile it. But she could still appeal that ruling, arguing an error in law on the part of Judge Rakoff.
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