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Palin's defamation case is part of a conservative strategy to take on the media

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin just lost her defamation lawsuit against The New York Times. But her case is part of a larger strategy by some conservative figures to go after the media. NPR's David Folkenflik has the story.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: More than a decade ago, Sarah Palin emerged as a folk hero to the political right in large part for taking on the press.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

SARAH PALIN: For these lamestream media characters to get all wee-weed up about that.

And you're not getting the truth from the lamestream media.

But this BS coming from the lamestream media lately...

FOLKENFLIK: Palin has been taking on the press again in court. Thanks to a 57-year-old Supreme Court ruling, it's very tough for public figures, like politicians, to win libel cases. Last week, Palin lost not just once, but twice in court. First, the judge presiding over her defamation trial against the Times decided to toss out her claim. Palin seemed shocked on the courthouse steps, saying the judge had taken away the role the jury should play.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PALIN: So whatever happened in their kind of usurps the system that I believe we're used to and we respect and works.

FOLKENFLIK: The very next day, the jury, which was already deliberating, came back and found the Times was not liable for defamation. Yet, Palin is intending to appeal. And her case appears to be part of a larger strategy.

JAMEEL JAFFER: You know, we've seen this wave of litigation over the last five or 10 years.

FOLKENFLIK: Jameel Jaffer is a former ACLU lawyer who has argued cases before the Supreme Court. He now heads up the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University.

JAFFER: You can describe that as weaponizing the defamation laws to chill public interest journalism. I think it's a real danger. I think it probably already has cast a real chill on certain kinds of journalism.

FOLKENFLIK: The cases hit the media outlets in the wallet. They're costly to defend even if the news outlets win. And even the threat of litigation can intimidate news organizations from hard-hitting stories. The New York Times made a terrible mistake about Palin in an editorial. But the Times corrected its error about Palin inside a day. And no evidence surfaced showing the Times knew that what it published was false. Jaffer says news outlets should be held to account when they knowingly publish something that's wrong.

JAFFER: But we also need them to have a certain amount of breathing space to ensure that they can do the work that our democracy needs them to do.

FOLKENFLIK: A former Republican congressman, Devin Nunes, has filed suit against 10 media companies. It's not clear who is paying for that litigation - or for Palin's, for that matter. There are loose ties connecting the lawyers involved in some of these cases. Years ago, Palin's attorneys helped to sue the news and gossip site Gawker into bankruptcy in a case financed by the right-wing Silicon Valley investor Peter Thiel. Now a new hero of the right has emerged to take on the media.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KYLE RITTENHOUSE: I don't want to see anybody else have to deal with what I went through.

FOLKENFLIK: Last fall, a jury in Kenosha, Wis., found Kyle Rittenhouse not guilty on all counts related to killing two people and wounding a third when he opened fire during protests over a police shooting there. Some media commentators had called him a murderer and suggested he was a white supremacist. On Tuesday night, Rittenhouse unveiled a new group on Tucker Carlson's Fox News show. Then he made a pitch for money.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RITTENHOUSE: Me and my team have decided to launch the Media Accountability Project as a tool to help fundraise and hold the media accountable for the lies they said, and deal with them in court.

FOLKENFLIK: First Amendment lawyers say there's the effort at a moonshot that conservative activists are seeking a case to be heard by a newly reshaped Supreme Court that's less friendly to journalists. Maybe it's Palin's appeal, maybe it's another one. These activists don't just want to win a case - they want the protections for the press rewritten altogether.

David Folkenflik, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF JASISE'S "SPF") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Folkenflik was described by Geraldo Rivera of Fox News as "a really weak-kneed, backstabbing, sweaty-palmed reporter." Others have been kinder. The Columbia Journalism Review, for example, once gave him a "laurel" for reporting that immediately led the U.S. military to institute safety measures for journalists in Baghdad.