MANHATTAN (CN) – Taking the stand after his editorial for The New York Times drew legal fire, an opinion editor said Wednesday that he “didn’t remotely intend” to implicate former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin in a mass shooting.
Lifting the shroud for the first time on an article credited solely to the Times Editorial Board, editorial page editor James Bennet took sole responsibility this afternoon for the language of the June 14 editorial “America’s Lethal Politics.”
The article ran hours after a shooting at a congressional baseball practice left Louisiana Republican Rep. Steve Scalise critically injured.
While the first draft of the article came from the Times’ Washington correspondent Elizabeth Williamson, the published version was heavily rewritten by Bennet.
A former editor-in-chief of the Atlantic, Bennet testified that Williamson’s version was “very much a first draft,” and more of a “summary of the news” that did not touch on the three editorial objectives.
Those three points, Bennet elaborated, were to “focus tension on the horror” of the event and the significance of the act; to restate the long-standing position of The New York Times’ Editorial Board in favor of sensible gun control; and to “express concern about the political rhetoric in the country.”
But the Times had to issue a correction later that day because its argument about the “sickening pattern” of politically incited violence in the United States linked Palin to the Jan. 8, 2011, shooting in Arizona carried out by Jared Loughner, which killed six and left Rep. Gabrielle Giffords gravely wounded.
Palin had faced scrutiny in the wake of that attack because of its proximity to the crosshairs-dotted map put out by her political action committee of targeted electoral districts, one of which was Giffords’.
While promoting the map on social media in late 2010, Palin had reached out to a group she called “commonsense conservatives & lovers of America.” Accompanying the invitation was the pernicious slogan “Don’t Retreat, Instead – RELOAD!”
Palin’s team removed the crosshairs from the map shortly after the shooting.
The Times editorial called Palin’s link to the incitement “clear” and “direct,” in the first version of its published editorial this summer. But Palin argued in an ensuing defamation complaint that there is no proof that the mentally ill Loughner saw her map.
Much of today’s proceedings focused on the editorial page editor’s use of the phrase “political incitement.” For Bennet, the term suggests causal relationship between incendiary political rhetoric and acts of violence.
He characterized his use of “incitement” to encompass a variety of different forms of political speech and rhetoric that can take the form of “a worry,” citing the “Pizzagate” shooting in Washington, D.C., and a pattern of attacks on political officials in the last 15 years.
Bennet testified that his original intent was “to harmonize” the Times’ coverage of the 2011 Giffords shooting with the paper’s coverage of the 2017 Scalise incident. To that end, he even assigned an aide to send Williamson previous editorial coverage by the Times on the Giffords shooting.
Bennet confirmed that, while the New York Times issued a correction on the day following the shooting and revised correction the next day, it never issued an apology to Palin.
U.S. District Judge Jed Rakoff ordered Bennet to take the stand last week, finding his testimony critical to a motion to dismiss the Times has filed against Palin’s suit.
Counsel on both sides of the case is a rematch of the monumental 2016 Hulk Hogan sextape lawsuit that sank Gawker. Palin’s attorney Kenneth Turkel represented the Hulk, whose real name is Terry Bollea, while the Times is represented by Michael Sullivan and David Schulz of Levine Sullivan Koch & Schulz, the same firm that represented Gawker.
Counsel for both parties declined to comment after the hearing.