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Feb. 9, 2022, 2:08 p.m.
Reporting & Production

Please explain tweet threads to the jury: The Sarah Palin v. New York Times trial shines a light on opinion sections

The trial is very accessible, and it’s generating a lot of peeks inside.

Not enough new Joe Rogan vs. Spotify news for you? You might want to tune in to the Sarah Palin vs. New York Times trial, which is underway this week in New York and is offering up all kinds of interesting tidbits — about the weirdness of newspapers, about Twitter vs. print apologies, about how big organizations try to do damage control, and about how people really hate losing their personal offices. Read on!

First, a quick recap from CNN’s Oliver Darcy:

Palin sued the paper in 2017 over an editorial that incorrectly linked the 2011 shooting of Rep. Gabby Giffords to a map circulated by Palin’s PAC that showed certain electoral districts under crosshairs. The Times corrected the error and apologized for it, and a judge initially dismissed the case. But a federal appeals court revived it and, as a result, a trial will now take place.

The case is, at its heart, about the limits of First Amendment protections and the standard set in the landmark New York Times vs. Sullivan case. Specifically, the standard that a public figure must prove an outlet operated with “actual malice” when it published defamatory information. Palin has argued The Times did, and The Times has said it made an honest error.

And a reminder on the kind of piece this was, from Slate:

It was an unsigned editorial. These appear in the Times opinion section, opposite the page where bylined opinion columns run. They are composed by a small group of Times opinion journalists known as the editorial board, and are meant to somehow represent the institutional voice of the Times. They are, in general, topical but milquetoast center-left takes.

A bit more from the Times:

The editorial, which lamented the nation’s increasingly heated political discourse, was written after the shooting at a congressional baseball team practice in June 2017 that left Representative Steve Scalise, Republican of Louisiana, gravely wounded. As [then-Opinion editor James Bennet] was editing the piece before publication, he inserted an incorrect reference to a 2010 map from Ms. Palin’s political action committee that included illustrations of cross hairs over 20 House districts held by Democrats.

That addition — “the link to political incitement was clear” — asserted that there was a link between the map and the 2011 shooting that critically injured another member of Congress, Gabrielle Giffords, and killed six others in Tucson, Ariz. In fact, such a link was never established.

Bennet resigned from The New York Times in 2020 following the publication of an op-ed by Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) that argued that the United States government should call in the military to quash Black Lives Matter protests. He testified in court on Tuesday and was back Wednesday.

His testimony and corresponding legal documents have provided a peek into some of the inner workings of the case. A few themes emerge.

This trial is very accessible, and it’s generating a lot of coverage

Many of the reporters covering this trial aren’t physically in court, but are calling in from their homes. You can do this, too. It certainly makes live-tweeting the trial easier.

Public access to live audio feeds of federal trials is partially a pandemic-related development, and it’s unclear if it will last (legislation is pending).

Opinion sections are weird.

Many of the details that emerge about how the Times Opinion section works (or, at least, how it worked in 2017) are strange to read from the outside.

Elizabeth Williamson was the then-editorial writer who wrote the first draft of the Palin editorial. (She’s now a feature writer at the Times.) David Axelrod is a lawyer representing The New York Times.

Bennet: “It was a terrible mistake. It felt terrible. And it still does.”

There’s a lot of Twitter in this trial.

Hanna Ingber was founding director of the New York Times Reader Center, an initiative launched in 2017 (shortly after the Times eliminated its Public Editor position) to interact more directly with readers.

This has not been the only discussion of tweet threads.

When do you apologize?

The Times apologized via Twitter from the @nytopinion account, but didn’t run an apology in the actual paper, just a correction. The “Darcy” here is CNN’s Oliver Darcy.

The policy against apologizing does not seem to apply to tweets.

Photo of New York’s Foley Square by Zach Korb used under a Creative Commons license.

Laura Hazard Owen is the editor of Nieman Lab. You can reach her via email (laura_owen@harvard.edu) or Twitter DM (@laurahazardowen).
POSTED     Feb. 9, 2022, 2:08 p.m.
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