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Letter from the Editor – Why Sarah ought to drop her suit

Hollywood, MD - Perhaps you have been following the drama involving Sarah Palin and the New York Times. If not, in a nutshell—the former Alaska governor and one-time vice presidential candidate is suing the iconic publication for an opinion piece in which the writer strongly implied that she (Palin) may have incited a mass shooting incident in Arizona in 2011 in which a Democratic congresswoman was critically injured and six people—including a child—were killed. The opinion piece implied that campaign literature from a political action committee Palin was associated with used graphics to plant some subliminal image in a political zealot’s head. The Times modified the statement but not to Palin’s liking and now she has hired a law firm with an outstanding track record to represent her in the lawsuit. She is claiming defamation of character.

Before I go further, let me just tell you I am no big fan of the New York Times. It’s a very good newspaper and its archives are great grist for a history research paper. But I grew up in the Washington, DC suburbs in the 1960s and the Washington Evening Star was my favorite paper. I couldn’t wait to get home from school to read it. It had a lot of good, salt of the Earth variety on every page. When my father once brought home a copy of the Sunday New York Times my first reaction after thumbing through it was “where are the comics?” I was informed that “Oh, no, the New York Times doesn’t have funny papers”—as if the comics were for idiots and the Times was a paper for only the most elite and sophisticated reader. As I grew older, I encountered a lot New Yorkers who were fairly smug and arrogant about this newspaper that was sacred parchment compared to the birdcage liners I had been reading while growing up. And you thought Yankees fans were insufferable?

So, I suppose I should be rooting for Sarah to win a bundle in this lawsuit, right? Well, indeed it would serve the New York Times right. Their comeuppance is long overdue. Here’s my problem. This was an opinion piece. A writer who reports on a news story on any beat should present both sides as neutrally as possible. Yes, there will always be the possibility that some detail will be inaccurate and needs to be promptly corrected. I believe the rules must be slightly different for opinion pieces, however. I do think the writer was in the process of making some excellent points about how politics do have a tendency to over-agitate. The point could have been made without using Palin’s name. But this was not specifically a hatchet job on Sarah Palin. Her role was anecdotal. Still, opinion pieces such as this one—and the one you are reading now—are labeled as opinion. They should spark conversation and debate, not lawsuits. If you know anything about the biases of the writer and the publication you are going to take what was written with a grain of salt. Your opinion of Palin’s character—be it positive, negative or neutral—is not going to change at all. So, there is no defamation, really.

The same right that allows for a presidential candidate to call his opponents liars and crooks or label news service reports as “fake” without the burden of proof also ought to be extended to writers who express opinions on the issues and personalities of the day. The scrutinizing of all opinion essays—including letters to the editor—could go spiraling out of kilter if Palin wins in court. That should be a precedent none of us should want to see set.

The New York Times still has not formally responded to the Palin lawsuit but has indicated it will vigorously defend itself if the matter goes to a courtroom. It shouldn’t come to that but should this story get way out of hand subsequent reports on the likely courtroom folly could turn into the comics section the New York Times never had.

The opinions expressed do not reflect those of TheBayNet.com management.

Contact Marty Madden at marty.madden@thebaynet.com

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