Journalism, Libel, and Political Messaging in America - UConn's Expert Weighs in

Journalism, Libel, and Political Messaging in America - UConn's Expert Weighs in

March 15, 20223 min read

Former Alaska governor and vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin didn't cause the deadly 2011 shooting in Tuscon, Arizona, that injured Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, says former journalist and UConn expert Amanda Crawford in a new essay for Nieman Reports

Palin is asking for a new trial after a jury in February rejected her libel lawsuit against the New York Times. Palin sued the newspaper after it published a 2017 editorial that erroneously claimed she was responsible for the shooting. The Times quickly issued a correction. 

But Crawford says that, in her opinion, Palin has contributed to increased vitriol in American politics today, and that libel laws protecting freedom of the press need to be guarded:

Palin, the 2008 Republican vice presidential nominee known for her gun-toting right-wing invective, is now asking for a new trial in the case that hinges on an error in a 2017 Times editorial, “America’s Lethal Politics.” The piece, which bemoaned the viciousness of political discourse and pondered links to acts of violence, was published after a man who had supported Sen. Bernie Sanders opened fire at congressional Republicans’ baseball practice, injuring House Majority Whip Steve Scalise.

The Times editorial noted that Palin’s political action committee published a campaign map in 2010 that used a graphic resembling the crosshairs of a rifle’s scope to mark targeted districts. It incorrectly drew a link between the map and the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, the Democratic incumbent in one of those districts, while she was at a constituent event in a grocery store parking lot in Tucson less than a year later.

I was a political reporter in Arizona at the time, and I remember how Giffords herself had warned that the map could incite violence. “We’re on Sarah Palin’s targeted list,” she said in a 2010 interview, according to The Washington Post, “but the thing is that the way that she has it depicted has the crosshairs of a gun sight over our district, and when people do that, they’ve got to realize there are consequences to that action.”

In the wake of the mass shooting in Tucson, some officials and members of the media suggested that political rhetoric, including Palin’s, may be to blame. In fact, no link between the campaign map and the shooting was ever established. As the judge said, the shooter’s own mental illness was to blame. That is where the Times blundered. An editor inserted language that said, “the link to political incitement was clear.” (The Times promptly issued a correction.) This was an egregious mistake and the product of sloppy journalism, but both the judge and the jury agreed that it was not done with actual malice or reckless disregard for the truth. That’s the standard that a public figure like Palin must meet because of the precedent set in the Sullivan case and subsequent decisions.

Even if Palin is granted a new trial and loses again, she is likely to appeal. Her lawsuit is part of a concerted effort by critics of the “lamestream media,” including former President Donald Trump, to change the libel standard to make it easier for political figures to sue journalists and win judgments for unintentional mistakes. They want to inhibit free debate and make it harder for journalists to hold them accountable. -- Nieman Reports, March 14, 2022

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Amanda Crawford is a veteran political reporter, literary journalist, and expert in journalism ethics, misinformation, conspiracy theories, and the First Amendment. Click on her icon now to arrange an interview today.

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  • Amanda J. Crawford
    Amanda J. Crawford Assistant Professor

    Professor Crawford is a veteran political reporter, literary journalist, and expert in journalism ethics and misinformation.

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