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Former Times editor takes stand in Palin defamation trial

The Times wasted little time clarifying the link it saw between Sarah Palin and a 2011 shooting. Its editor insisted Tuesday that this is as good as an apology.

MANHATTAN (CN) — An erstwhile opinion editor of The New York Times offered a mea culpa on the stand Tuesday as he insisted that there was no political malice at play when he penned the editorial that sparked a lawsuit from former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin despite his swift efforts to correct the piece.

“This is my fault. I wrote those sentences,” James Bennet testified during three hours of direct questioning on Tuesday. “I’m not looking to shift the blame.”

Palin sued the Times only days after her name appeared in a June 14, 2017, article that Bennet had penned for the Times editorial board responding to a shooting that morning at a congressional baseball practice. Titled “America’s Lethal Politics,” the editorial connected the nation’s pattern of mass shootings to overheated political rhetoric, citing as one example the 2011 shooting in Tucson, Ariz., that left a federal judge and five others people dead at a Congress on Your Corner event hosted by the newly inducted Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords.

In its original form, the piece called the Tucson shooter's connection to Palin “clear” and “direct," focused on a map that her political action committee had released before the rampage that put crosshairs over Giffords’ electoral district and those of 19 other Democrats. The crosshairs were removed shortly after the murders.

Within 24 hours, however, the Times would issue a lengthy correction noting “no such link was established.” 

Palin has termed this correction and another that the newspaper made “woefully insufficient," and questions the failure to retract the piece or issue an apology.

On the stand Tuesday, however, Bennet explained his understanding of “longstanding policy” at The New York Times not to apologize for corrections.

“If you apologize every time, it becomes meaningless,” he said, adding that the corrections themselves are “an extremely painful thing for the journalists, and expressive of regret."

While the first draft of the editorial came from the Times’ Washington correspondent Elizabeth Williamson, Bennet, a former editor-in-chief of the Atlantic who was then the opinion editor at the Times, had heavily rewritten the published piece.

Shane Vogt, an attorney for Palin with the law firm Turkel Cuva Barrios in Tampa, Fla., handled direct questioning of Bennet, who was added as a co-defendant to the suit in Palin’s first amended complaint.

“Now you would agree with me that that paragraph communicates with readers that overheated political rhetoric can create a climate that is capable of nurturing rage,” Vogt asked.

James Bennet in New York on Aug. 16, 2017, when he was the editorial page editor of The New York Times. (AP Photo/Larry Neumeister, File)

Bennet, 55, did agree on this point but firmly rebuffed Vogt’s assertion that he was somehow “determined to use the word ‘incitement’ in the ‘America’s Lethal Politics’ editorial."

Lingering on the term throughout witness examination, Vogt probed Bennet’s interest how the term “political incitement” is used in connection with the violent conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.

“It's used on both sides in that conflict to basically describe all sorts of communication that teach people treat each other as enemies, and in some cases even less than human,” Bennet explained.

In that particular context, he continued, "political incitement" includes "textbooks that dehumanize the other side of the conflict" and signs that stoke political anger.

“Now, if I understand you," Palin's attorney asked, "in the sense that you use that term in the editorial, you consider the map circulated by Sarah Palin's political action committee to be political incitement — is that, right?”

Bennet replied in the affirmative but also said he did not recall seeing press coverage of the map when it was released.

The former editor also answered “yes” when Vogt asked him he agreed with an assessment from Times opinion columnist Ross Douthat that, prior to the Times’ correction, the editorial “could be read like partisan scorekeeping.”

Asked if he had ever apologized to Palin, Bennet responded, “My hope is that as a consequence of this process now I have."

Bennet’s direct testimony will continue Wednesday morning. Palin is expected to take the stand later this week.

During a 2017 hearing on the case, Bennet testified that he “didn’t remotely intend” to implicate the former Alaska governor in a mass shooting.

Judge Rakoff, a Clinton appointee, tossed the claims in the Southern District of New York, but the suit was later revived by the Second Circuit. 

The trial was due to commence on Jan. 24 but was postponed until Feb. 3 after Palin tested positive for Covid-19.

"The editorial was not even about her," New York Times attorney David Axelrod said during opening arguments last Thursday.

Bennet resigned from the New York Times following uproar over an opinion piece by Arkansas Republican Senator Tom Cotton in June 2020 that advocated deploying federal troops to quell unrest in American cities ignited by the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. It was later revealed Bennet had not read the piece prior to publication.

In New York Times v. Sullivan, the U.S. Supreme Court decided in 1964, the First Amendment protects statements about public figures, including false ones, unless officials can prove actual malice.

Throughout his 2016 presidential campaign, former president Donald Trump vowed to "open up" libel laws and make it easier to seek damages from journalists in response to negative media coverage, but did not change federal defamation laws during his presidency.

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