Sarah Palin Prods a Camera-Shy New York Times into the Spotlight
Former opinion page editor James Bennet ducks the paparazzi as the attention-seeking former Alaska governor’s defamation trial opens following her bout with Covid
Outside the Daniel Patrick Moynihan Courthouse on Thursday morning, photographers stood around chatting, seemingly inured to the drizzle. One promised he’d pounce the moment he saw former New York Times opinion editor James Bennet. Another nodded approvingly. In the context of the trial, Bennet was one of the two celebrity attention magnets of the moment. Photographer Jeenah Moon managed to snap a picture of him, masked and behatted, at a previous court appearance. “He has unique eyebrows, so that’s how we figured out who he was even though he wore the mask and the hat,” she said. “Once he saw people taking photos, he turned around.” Though she got to the courthouse around 7 a.m. on Thursday, Moon couldn’t repeat the feat of capturing the elusive editor. “We didn’t see him,” she said. “He was hiding from us.”
Bennet and the photographer scrum were there for the Sarah Palin v. The New York Times Company trial. In 2017, three years before he left The Times in the wake of the Tom Cotton op-ed controversy, Bennet had published an editorial that incorrectly claimed that an ad run by Sarah Palin’s political action committee had incited a 2011 mass shooting that killed six and injured 13, including Rep. Gabby Giffords. Within 24 hours, The Times issued two corrections, but Palin pressed ahead with a defamation suit. The trial was supposed to start last week, but the former Governor of Alaska, who has been vocal about refusing to get vaccinated, tested positive for Covid on the morning of the originally scheduled first day. So the trial’s opening was postponed to Thursday. The proceedings had the trappings of a media spectacle. Some of the same people who had come out to watch the Ghislaine Maxwell trial were present, but the mood was generally more subdued. Bennet’s response to the photographers seems to indicate how his former employer is reacting to the trial. Employees at the paper shied away from discussing the trial with The Fine Print. Palin’s lawsuit had forced The Times into the center of a wild spectacle, and that seemed to induce a general camera-shyness.
By the time The Fine Print arrived, the main courtroom on the 24th floor of the building had already filled up, so we made our way down to the 14th-floor overflow viewing room. The company there was estimable. The Washington Post’s Sarah Ellison snagged one of the juror’s chairs with a personal screen showing the main courtroom. The Times’s Jeremy W. Peters got stuck down the bench from The Fine Print watching the trial on a TV. New York magazine’s Andrew Rice arrived a little late and found a seat on a bench against the back wall of the courtroom. Most of the reporters were required to check their phones and electronics when they entered the building, leaving the courtroom breaks to be filled with fidgeting and socializing. Ellison and Rice reminisced about the last time they saw each other at the Succession premiere party at the Museum of Natural History in October. Other reporters wandered around, stretching and chatting. Peters sat and flipped through a book, attentively underlining and taking notes.
Peters finds himself in the odd position of covering the trial while also being employed by one of the parties in the case. One imagines that navigating those dueling loyalties to his readers and his employer could be fraught. He didn’t feel free to talk openly about the experience. “It wouldn’t be appropriate for me to say anything since The Times is involved in this case, and I can’t speak for the paper,” he said. “I hate saying no to another reporter, but I’m sure you can appreciate the need to leave this to the lawyers.” For the company’s part, Times spokesperson Annie Tressler said its editors weren’t treating its coverage any differently than the rest of its news report: “Our newsroom edits all coverage by the same standards, including when it involves The Times.”
Once the proceedings got going, the pace of the trial left limited time to ruminate over those sorts of anxieties. Judge Jed S. Rakoff completed jury selection with surprising celerity. He explained his approach with a Clint Eastwood timbre, though less growly. “Some judges use newer methods, but I use the old method,” he said. “It was good enough for Learned Hand, and it’s good enough for me.” No questions from the lawyers made it through to the speakers in the overflow room. Apart from the occasional sidebar with the judge, each juror simply stated where they live, their occupation, and their partner’s occupation if they were married. One ICU nurse asked to be excused to go back and help her understaffed team treat Covid patients and was quickly dismissed. There didn’t seem to be a chance for any of them to be asked about their attitudes towards The New York Times and Palin.
In his opening statement, Palin’s lawyer Shane Vogt told the jurors, “Your feelings about Governor Palin and The New York Times are irrelevant.” Yet some of his subsequent lines seemed almost as if they were designed to elicit canned culture war responses. “What you’re going to learn about Mr. Bennet is that he is an Ivy League-educated career journalist,” he said, emphasizing Ivy. “It is his job to know the meaning of words. When he gets on the stand, you will hear him say that he didn’t.” He also promised, “We’re also going to show you a history of bias within The Times toward Republicans and Governor Palin herself.” The primary problem, it seemed from his statement, was that though The Times ran a correction, “they didn’t apologize,” and thus his client deserved damages. “The New York Times has a policy against apologizing because they think they can do whatever they want,” he said. “They’re The New York Times.”
The Times’s lawyer, David L. Axelrod, who seems to use his middle initial to eliminate confusion with his famous political dopplegänger, countered in his opening statement by repeatedly emphasizing Bennet’s corporeality. “James will be sitting here throughout the trial with us,” he said. He promised the jurors that they would come to understand “how badly he felt when he understood that his words were being understood in a way he didn’t intend.” He also brought up some relatable stress-induced insomnia, adding, “you’re going to see that he barely slept that night.” But the most forceful thrust of his argument was that Palin hadn’t ultimately been hurt by The Times’s mistake. “Her reputation wasn’t harmed,” he said before enumerating her accomplishments following the publication of the editorial, emphasizing one of the most spectacular: “She was a star on a popular family television show, The Masked Singer.”