By Howard Kurtz, ,
Published June 29, 2017
Sarah Palin’s decision to sue the New York Times over an utterly irresponsible editorial underscores an unfortunate reality:
This has been a truly awful stretch for the mainstream media.
The former governor’s lawsuit came shortly after CNN forced the resignation of three journalists over a story on the Russia investigation that prompted a retraction and apology to Trump adviser Anthony Scaramucci.
And that followed erroneous reports by CNN and ABC that James Comey was going to testify that he never told President Trump he wasn’t under FBI investigation on the Russia matter—except that Comey actually backed up Trump on that point.
CNN also got tarred, through no fault of its own, by Kathy Griffin holding up a severed “Trump” head and host Reza Aslan calling Trump a piece of excrement and an “embarrassment to humankind.” The network cut ties with both of them.
Every mistake, misstep and overreach gives ammunition to a president who takes a very dim view of the media and has unleashed a torrent of “fake news” tweets in the last two days. And each blunder further convinces Trump supporters that the press has no interest in being fair to this president and his people.
Trump seized on the CNN retraction on Twitter, and Sarah Huckabee Sanders teed off in responding to a question on the subject.
“I think it’s the constant barrage of fake news directed at this president probably that has garnered a lot of his frustration,” she said. Sanders added that “we have gone to a place where if the media can’t be trusted to report the news, then that’s a dangerous place for America.”
Her answer prompted a lengthy interruption from Brian Karem, executive editor of Maryland’s Sentinel newspapers, who declared: “We’re here to ask you questions, you’re here to provide the answers, and what you just did is inflammatory to people all over the country who look at it and say, see, once again, the president is right and everybody else out here is fake media.”
Karem’s rant got him a bunch of cable bookings. He said on MSNBC: “We can’t take the bullying anymore. It’s undermining the Fourth Estate, the First Amendment, the reporters in the room, even Breitbart—those people are responsible.”
Is it “bullying” when administration officials criticize the media, given that the media rip the administration every day? I don’t like many of the press briefings being moved off camera, but does that amount to bullying?
One person who has refused to be bullied is Sarah Palin. Her lawsuit, filed yesterday, deals with a Times editorial that was utterly false and had to be corrected.
That editorial was reprehensible, mean-spirited and utterly tone-deaf, coming as it did the same day that Steve Scalise was nearly killed and four other people wounded at a Virginia baseball field.
It accused Palin of “incitement” in the 2011 wounding of Gabby Giffords, and the killing of six others, because her political committee circulated a map with crosshairs to mark 20 targeted Democratic districts--with no evidence the gunman ever saw the map.
Palin has every right to be furious and every right to sue—but whether she can win is another question.
The lawsuit says that the paper’s response “did not approach the degree of the retraction and apology necessary and warranted by the Times’s false assertion that Mrs. Palin incited murder.” The paper tweeted a “sorry” to its readers but did not apologize to Palin, which might have averted the lawsuit.
A Times spokeswoman said in a statement, “We have not reviewed the claim yet but will defend against any claim vigorously.”
Palin’s problem is that the Supreme Court sets a very high bar for suing public figures for libel, ironically set out in the 1964 case of New York Times v. Sullivan. A public figure, which the former VP nominee most assuredly is, must prove that something was published with actual malice or with reckless disregard for the truth. Having run a correction the next day, the Times might be able to mitigate the charge of malice.
What’s sad is that the Times was trying to deflect attention from criticism of left-wing rhetoric, since the Virginia shooter two weeks ago was an avowed hater of Republicans, to right-wing rhetoric by resurrecting this false liberal charge from six years ago. But at the very least, Palin’s lawsuit casts a harsh spotlight on what the Times editorial board did.
Journalists are entitled to push back against over-the-top attacks from the Trump administration. But perhaps they should engage in some reflection about all the unforced errors that are fueling the criticism.