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Reckless Disregard of the Truth

Newspaper editorials are statements of opinion, but those opinions are often supported by assertions of fact.  As the saying goes, everyone is entitled to his own opinion but not his own facts.

On this blog we have often called out the New York Times editorial page for its particularly loose association with the truth.  See, e.g., this post from 2013.  NYT editorials regularly make factual assertions that seem to be pulled out of advocates' talking points.  If they do any fact-checking at all on their editorials before they print them, they are doing it exceptionally poorly.

Now Derek Hawkins reports in the WaPo that Sarah Palin has sued the NYT over false assertions of fact in an editorial.

The lawsuit, filed in federal court in New York, says a Times editorial earlier this month "falsely stated as a matter of fact" that Palin had incited the attack, in which a gunman shot 19 people, killing six of them.

The Times published the editorial on June 14, shortly after a gunman opened fire on Republican lawmakers at a baseball field in Alexandria, injuring Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.) and several others. Drawing a parallel to the Arizona shooting, the newspaper's editorial board wrote that both attacks fit a "sickeningly familiar pattern" and that the "link to political incitement was clear."

"Before the shooting," it read, "Sarah Palin's political action committee circulated a map of targeted electoral districts that put Ms. Giffords and 19 other Democrats under stylized cross hairs."

The description was inaccurate. The map had put crosshairs over targeted electoral districts but not Democratic politicians. Following a wave of backlash on social media, the Times issued an apology and corrected the editorial, saying no connection between political incitement and the Arizona shooting was ever established.

Mrs. Palin is, of course, a public figure, so under the landmark 1964 precedent of New York Times v. Sullivan (1964) she would need to prove "that the statement was made ... with knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not."  I don't think she will have too much difficulty in this case.  The debunking of that false charge was very widely known, and if this isn't "reckless disregard" it is hard to imagine what is.

Whether Mrs. Palin can clear the other hurdles that a defamation plaintiff must clear to actually prevail is another question.  Damages, for example, often present a difficult question in such cases.

Whatever the outcome, though, I hope getting sued in such a high profile matter serves as a wake-up call to the NYT editorial staff.  They need to have every editorial strictly fact-checked before they print it, and they need to have the job done by someone who does not live in a left-wing bubble from which all contrary information has been censored.  If nobody on their staff knew that allegation had been debunked, that demonstrates that they need more diversity of viewpoint on their staff.

P.S.:  I wonder why her lawyers filed the suit in New York.  The NYT is a national newspaper.  Surely there are lots of friendlier venues they might have filed in.


The NYT grudgingly issued two separate corrections, but if it has apologized, I missed it.

I assume there was a very good reason for the venue--publicity? Likelihood that the Times would fight instead of quietly settling--my sense is that she isn't after the money, but publicity.

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