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Opinion Sarah Palin bombs on witness stand in New York Times trial

Sarah Palin, 2008 Republican vice-presidential candidate and former Alaska governor, arrives at the federal courthouse in Manhattan on Feb. 10. (Shannon Stapleton/Reuters)

Former Alaska governor Sarah Palin’s years as a conservative provocateur, TV personality and outspoken critic of the “lamestream media” have ill-prepared her for any venue in which the federal rules of evidence hold sway. In the Manhattan courtroom of Judge Jed S. Rakoff on Thursday, Palin and her bombast bombed.

At issue was Palin’s 2017 defamation lawsuit against the New York Times over an editorial that baselessly asserted a “political incitement” link between a map circulated in March 2010 by her political action committee (SarahPAC) and a 2011 mass shooting in Arizona. The Times corrected the editorial, and Palin sued less than two weeks after the editorial was published.

But under questioning from her attorney, Ken Turkel, Palin managed to suggest that the Times’s alleged libels were broader than the editorial, as her lawyers had previously argued. She claimed that there was, in fact, another instance when the Times committed the same mistake.

When Turkel asked about her reaction to the Times editorial, Palin said her closest associates knew that she would be “mortified” and would need to “respond again to what the New York Times had lied about again.”

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Counsel for the Times quickly objected to Palin’s claim, seeking to have it stricken from the record.

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Rakoff intervened: “What did you mean by ‘again’?”

“They lied before,” responded Palin.

“About this?” asked Rakoff

“My view was the New York Times took a lot of liberties and wasn’t always truthful,” answered Palin. “That’s what I meant by ‘again.’”

The judge decided that he wouldn’t strike the testimony but noted that the Times could probe it on cross-examination.

Turkel then resumed his questioning. “Gov. Palin, when you say ‘again,’ are you talking specifically with respect to the contention that you had somehow incited Jared Loughner to shoot the people in Tucson?”

“Precisely,” responded Palin.

The Times again objected, which brought Rakoff back into the mix. He asked Palin to clarify whether she was blaming the Times specifically, “or just other folks” for making this connection before the 2017 editorial.

“I believe it was the New York Times helping to lead the charge that a link was being made between me, Sarah Palin and SarahPAC, and political incitement of actions that would turn into tragedy,” Palin said.

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Pressed for specifics, Palin came up short: “The New York Times would write with that linkage between Sarah Palin and inciting political violence. And I don’t have the specific articles, of course, in front of me.”

So now Palin was alleging that there could be multiple Times stories at issue. A sidebar discussion among the judge and the attorneys ensued. When he returned, Rakoff said that the legal issue had been resolved. Turkel steered away from the topic from that point onward.

Former Alaska governor Sarah Palin on Feb. 10 testified against the New York Times regarding an editorial incorrectly linked her to a mass shooting. (Video: Reuters)

No one who has even casually followed the former governor’s career would be surprised at these specifics-free blasts against the media. Yet this time, Palin chose the wrong venue for such a critique. Adoring audiences at Fox News don’t stop and ask for citations, specifics, supporting evidence. But that’s precisely what happens in a courtroom.

Palin’s blame-the-media-at-all-costs ethos also arose when she was asked about the SarahPAC map at issue in the lawsuit. It overlaid stylized crosshairs over congressional districts in which the PAC hoped to prevail in the 2010 midterm elections.

Citing language in the editorial saying that SarahPAC had “circulated” that map, Turkel asked Palin if that was the case. “No,” responded Palin. “No. It was put on my website. The media circulated it.” But if that argument holds sway with the jury, just think of the arguments that the Times’s attorneys could make: The New York Times didn’t circulate this erroneous editorial. It was put on our website. Subscribers circulated it.

Still another lowlight came when David Axelrod, an attorney for the Times, was attempting to establish that people like Palin — politicians on a national stage — must expect scrutiny. Axelrod noted that Sen. John McCain’s (R-Ariz.) choice of Palin as his running mate in 2008 prompted criticism of her tenure as governor of Alaska. “I didn’t have time nor desire to read what was being written about me while I was jumping on that campaign trail,” retorted Palin. But seconds later, she seemed familiar with that coverage. In response to Axelrod’s reference to attacks on “her record” in Alaska, Palin said, “That was the problem: My record wasn’t being reported.”

Even Palin’s attempt to show some hockey-mom authenticity backfired. At one point, she referenced the witness stand as the “penalty box.” Perhaps she’d forgotten that it was she who filed this suit.

The false link in the Times editorial is an astounding claim — that Palin’s PAC played an inciting role in a shooting that killed six people and wounded 13, including Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.). There was enough merit in her legal arguments to get the case in front of a jury. But on Thursday, the plaintiff in Palin v. New York Times ran up against her biggest obstacle yet — herself.