The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Sarah Palin, center stage again, in New York Times court battle that could be her true legacy

She once seemed headed to a seat of power. On Thursday, she testified in a trial that could prove more consequential.

Sarah Palin arrives at U.S. District Court in Manhattan for her second day of testimony in the trial of her libel suit against the New York Times. At left is former NHL hockey player Ron Duguay. (Shannon Stapleton/Reuters)
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NEW YORK — If you blurred your eyes a little, it could have been 2008 all over again, with Sarah Palin at center stage.

Every face turned her way as the former Alaska governor took the stand in the trial for her blockbuster libel suit against the New York Times, her chestnut hair fixed in the same classic updo that Tina Fey copied for her celebrated impersonation. Palin joked warmly with the judge about her five children and eight grandchildren and declared, with a familiar touch of Wasilla in her voice, that anyone who hasn’t visited her small, frigid hometown is “missin’ out.”

“Thank you, guys, I’ll see you tomorrow,” she brightly told the paparazzi who chased her to a black GMC Yukon XL, a handsome new escort at her side, after a brief first appearance in the witness chair Wednesday. Back in the hot seat Thursday morning for the trial’s most-anticipated testimony, she vividly compared herself to David slinging stones at the Goliath-like Times, fighting “untruths” and trying to “work for integrity in media.”

Sarah Palin arrives at U.S. District Court in Manhattan on Feb. 10 to testify for the second time in her libel suit against the New York Times. (Video: AP)

Yet all the old star power Palin has unleashed in Manhattan over the past few weeks mostly serves as a contrast to her marked absence from the national media-political radar over the past decade.

As the feisty, plain-talking Republican nominee for vice president in 2008, Palin foreshadowed the celebrification of politics and helped hone media-bashing into a key Republican strategy long before Donald Trump declared journalists the “enemy of the people.” But she never managed to ride the style of politics she helped perfect to a position of power. Her most notable media appearance in recent years was a cameo as a dancing bear on “The Masked Singer.”

Now, though, she has reemerged as the catalyst in a legal drama rattling the entire media industry.

Sarah Palin’s libel case against New York Times opens in Manhattan courtroom, a culture clash with lasting legal potential

It’s a lawsuit that challenges long-standing protections for journalists who write about public figures, where, among other things, it will be debated just how public a figure Palin is still considered to be. Whether she wins or loses in New York, this lawsuit could end up serving as her most significant legacy — for good or bad — if it makes its way to the Supreme Court.

Under questioning from her lawyer, Palin described herself as a single mother — she and husband Todd divorced in 2020 — who now spends most of her time in Wasilla caring for her elderly father and her youngest son, Trig, who has Down syndrome. Palin’s relative prominence, or lack thereof, could be pertinent to the case, since public figures face a higher bar for proving libel.

“I was powerless,” she said, describing her status in 2017, when she says she was defamed by a Times editorial. “I didn’t have the [political action committee] up and running and aggressive. I didn’t have any television contracts.”

Yet she seemed to contradict that self-description at another point. “My life was busy,” she said, describing the consulting gigs and speaking engagements that occupied her time until the editorial appeared.

Palin and her lawyers maintain that her reputation was harmed by the 2017 Times editorial, which inaccurately suggested a “link” between her political action committee’s map highlighting targeted Democratic congressional districts with stylized crosshairs and a 2011 mass shooting in Tucson that killed six people and injured one of those officeholders, then-Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.).

In fact, investigators had found no evidence that the mentally ill shooter was motivated by the Palin campaign graphic, and the Times quickly corrected the editorial. Then-editorial page editor James Bennet testified earlier this week that he inserted the erroneous sentence during a stressful, late-night rewriting session that attorneys for the Times are framing as merely sloppy — not an act of “actual malice” that Palin claims, another of the high bars her team must clear to prove libel.

Two conservative Supreme Court justices, Clarence Thomas and Neil M. Gorsuch, have signaled a willingness to reassess the high standards that have long been upheld in libel cases to the benefit of journalists — part of why this case, the first libel action against the New York Times to go to trial in the United States in nearly 20 years, has been so closely watched.

Meanwhile, some observers have speculated that the presence of Kenneth Turkel and Shane Vogt on Palin’s legal team could signal an orchestrated push to take this case to the next level. The two attorneys won the multimillion-dollar invasion-of-privacy judgment against Gawker on behalf of wrestler Hulk Hogan that forced the gossip website to shutter; it was later revealed that conservative Silicon Valley billionaire Peter Thiel, an antagonist of the site, had quietly underwritten the lawsuit against it.

Lawyers for the New York Times argued in their opening statements last week that Palin did not suffer harm from the editorial because she “continues to be a media sensation.”

That’s certainly a fair description of Palin’s last couple weeks in Manhattan, at least.

The trial was set to begin Jan. 24 but was abruptly delayed by Palin’s positive test for the coronavirus. (“She is, of course, unvaccinated,” Judge Jed S. Rakoff told the courtroom, referring to her vocal opposition to vaccine mandates.) That night, Palin helped juice the ratings of Jesse Watters’s new prime-time show on Fox News, in a merry appearance in which she declared that covid had “become something to control the people.”

Two days later, Palin dined on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, drawing considerable attention both for venturing out while potentially infectious (New York City restaurants require proof of vaccination for indoor dining; she took a table in a heated outdoor enclosure) and for her VIP companion. He was former New York Rangers ice hockey star Ron Duguay, leading to a tabloid debate over their relationship (New York Post: “hooking up”; People magazine: “just friends”) that flared anew this week when they arrived at the courthouse together Wednesday, holding hands.

Yet it’s a far cry from the stature both fans and detractors assumed she would claim a dozen years ago.

Her speech accepting the nomination as John McCain’s running mate at the 2008 GOP national convention seemed to position her for a big political future. She was the first woman on a Republican presidential ticket, a vivid and groundbreaking personality with five children at home, a snowmobile-racing husband and a reported talent for field-dressing a moose.

But eight months after McCain lost to Barack Obama, Palin resigned as governor with a year and a half left in her term, citing the legal costs of responding to media inquiries, ethics complaints and “opposition research” efforts.

Some allies believe her complaints about feeling under siege were legitimate. Palin “wowed a lot of people at the Republican convention,” said John Coale, a prominent Washington lawyer who advised her after the campaign and helped set up her political action committee. “That’s when the attacks on her started, and here we go! The media couldn’t get enough.”

A major media career seemed to beckon: In November of that year, she released “Going Rogue: An American Life,” for which she received a $1.25 million advance. The book settled scores with McCain campaign staff and sold over 2 million copies. As tea party activists electrified conservative politics, Fox News signed her in January 2010 to a reported $1 million contributor contract, building a studio in her Wasilla home. TLC built an eight-part series around her that same year, “Sarah Palin’s Alaska.”

“She speaks right into the base’s soul,” said Eric Bolling, a conservative pundit who has hosted her on his Newsmax show and considers her a friend.

Yet with her popularity remaining high among the Republican base, she kept her name in the mix for the 2012 president race for several months, before announcing in October 2011 that she would not run.

Palin’s TLC show ended in 2011 as well, and her tenure at Fox proved rocky. In January 2013, she left the conservative news network amid reports suggesting that Fox had only offered to keep her at a lower salary than she began with. She re-signed with Fox in June of that year, only to depart again some two years later.

Critics had given her tepid reviews as a talking head — “a one-note wonder, jabbing at President Barack Obama … but reluctant to challenge her fellow Republicans,” wrote Howard Kurtz for CNN early in 2013, before he joined Fox.

Her next media move brought her closer to reality TV — her own channel on the streaming platform TAPP TV, launched in July 2014, that allowed Palin to talk directly to her audience from cameras installed throughout her home in Wasilla.

“Her followers were slavishly devoted to any crumbs of insight or peeks behind the curtain of her life,” recalled Jon Klein, the former CNN executive who signed her to the project, “whether it was a policy pronouncement or private home videos of the new dog they had just bought.” It was the dog, in fact, who drew the largest viewership numbers of the series, Klein said.

But the deal, in which Palin was compensated based on revenue earned by the show rather than a big payment up front, ended within the year. “We were sorry when she decided not to continue with it,” Klein said.

As a new crop of conservative media stars emerged alongside Donald Trump, whom she endorsed in January 2016, Palin seemed to recede even further. That same year, she filmed a pilot for a courtroom-based reality show in which she was to serve as a Judge Judy-type figure overseeing personal disputes. But the show never made it to air.

“We couldn’t sell it,” Larry Lyttle, the veteran Hollywood producer on the project, told The Washington Post. “Whatever talents she had, they were not being on television as a reality TV judge.”

Lyttle was impressed by Palin’s “audacity,” he said, “even though our politics couldn’t have been farther apart.” But the larger-than-life persona she projected in 2008 would mysteriously vanish when his cameras turned on, replaced by “a lower-key, kinder persona,” he said. “She didn’t give people what they expected. In her case, you wanted to watch her outrageousness.”

During cross-examination Thursday, an attorney for the Times attempted to poke holes in Palin’s argument that she had been harmed by the editorial.

Under questioning by lawyer David Axelrod (no connection to the Obama adviser and CNN pundit of the same name), Palin acknowledged that her paid work with Fox ended well before the editorial appeared, and that she also continued to be booked by the network as a guest afterward. He also noted her continued involvement in politics; though no longer in office, Palin conceded she had hit the campaign trail for candidates in Georgia and Alabama.

“I can’t specifically give you a name of someone who told me they didn’t want me to help them,” she said, when Axelrod asked for specific people who had shunned her in the wake of the editorial. He also brought up her guest spot on “The Masked Singer.”

“It was the most fun 90 seconds of my life,” she said.

“You got good money for that, right?” he asked.

“It paid some bills,” Palin said. “I’ll say it was good money.”

Jeremy Barr contributed to this report.

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly referred to Sarah Palin’s former husband as a dogsled racer. Todd Palin is in fact a four-time winner of the Iron Dog, which is not a sled-dog race but a snowmobile race held on the same course as the famed Iditarod sled-dog race.

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