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Former 'New York Times' editor testifies on Sarah Palin editorial: 'This is my fault'

Former <em>New York Times</em> editorial page editor James Bennet, shown here in a photo from 2017, said Tuesday he accepted blame for an editorial that falsely linked a graphic from former Gov. Sarah Palin's political action committee with a mass shooting in Arizona. He testified during Palin's defamation suit.
Larry Neumeister
Former New York Times editorial page editor James Bennet, shown here in a photo from 2017, said Tuesday he accepted blame for an editorial that falsely linked a graphic from former Gov. Sarah Palin's political action committee with a mass shooting in Arizona. He testified during Palin's defamation suit.

The former top editor over the New York Times opinion sections, James Bennet, testified on Tuesday that he accepted full blame for a passage in a June 2017 editorial that wrongly linked former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin's political action committee to the deadly mass shooting in Arizona that left a Democratic congresswoman critically wounded.

The editorial inspired Palin to file a defamation lawsuit against The Times and Bennet that has lasted for more than four-and-a-half years.

"This is my fault," Bennet testified. "I wrote those sentences and I'm not looking to shift the blame to anyone else. I just want that for the record."

Asked if he was formally reprimanded, Bennet revealed that he apologized and took full responsibility for the errors to the New York Times Co. board of directors. The editorial was corrected the day after it was first posted. But Bennet conceded he had not apologized directly to Palin, although he testified he sought to do so unsuccessfully by commenting to a CNN reporter.

Bennet proved deliberate and measured on the stand. He also appeared well coached, often answering only "yes" or "no." Attorneys for The Times have characterized his actions as an "honest mistake."

Yet Palin's lead attorney, Shane Vogt, circled Bennet like a prizefighter, offering none of the niceties afforded earlier witnesses from the newspaper, and jabbing him over failures to research his claims carefully. Over the course of the trial, Vogt explored the involvement of other journalists on the editorial page, but always returned to Bennet's role.

The trial, playing out in a federal courtroom in downtown Manhattan, offers a lurching seminar in libel law, journalism ethics, and the finer and sometimes ugly details of putting out a daily newspaper. Much of the questioning focused on who commissioned, wrote, researched, edited, reviewed, and approved the editorial itself - and what happened as it became increasingly clear the editorial's language about Palin was wrong.

And yet much of the sparring between Palin's attorneys and those for the Times and Bennet centered on the former editor himself - what he could reasonably be expected to have known, what he could reasonably be expected to have read, and the degree to which his professional and family ties could be wielded against him.

The Times editorial, titled "America's Lethal Politics," was posted late on the day of a shooting that almost took the life of Republican Rep. Steve Scalise of Louisiana. It made a sweeping argument for greater gun control and warned of the dangers of heated political rhetoric.

The piece folded in the left-wing politics of Scalise's shooter with the earlier Arizona shooting, which killed six people and grievously wounded then-U.S. Rep. Gabby Giffords, a Democrat. The Times editorial said that Palin's political action committee had created a graphic of gun cross-hairs over Gifford and other Democratic lawmakers in a fundraising pitch; Bennet's revisions led to a line that "the link to political incitement was clear."

In fact no such connection had been found, as an ABC News story that the editorial linked to reported. And the targeting symbols were placed over congressional districts, not lawmakers themselves, as the editorial wrongly implied.

Accused of clinging to a 'narrative' despite the facts

The statements raised concerns inside the newsroom and fueled public outrage. The next day, the Times corrected the editorial twice. Bennet tweeted out an apology via the editorial page's Twitter account. Nonetheless, Palin filed suit almost immediately.

In his opening statement to jurors last week, Vogt argued that Bennet developed a narrative involving the former governor at the outset "and stuck with regardless of what was presented to him, regardless of what research he had. He had his narrative and he stuck with it."

Vogt and his colleague Kenneth Turkel sought to use Bennet's former job as editor-in-chief of The Atlantic to suggest animus against Palin. They pointed to blog posts on the magazine's site The Wire, in which opinion journalist Andrew Sullivan wrote caustically about Palin. Bennet said he could not remember reading specific Sullivan's pieces, or coverage of the shooting in Tucson that knocked down any connection of the shooter to ads from Palin's political action committee. Vogt highlighted the contrast between Bennet's efforts to pin down the facts once objections arose after the publication of the editorial, rather than before.

Palin's defamation suit is not only dramatic but rare: such cases are normally dismissed or resolved with a settlement. Media and First Amendment attorneys say they have concens about the implications for the ability of the press to give tough scrutiny to public figures. Yet some legal scholars say current precedent makes it hard to force the media to take responsibility for their mistakes. Bennet is set to testify again on Wednesday; Palin's own testimony is expected subsequently.

A rush to publish became a self-inflicted wound

There were so many moments at which the false claim could have been forestalled. And it was a doubly self-inflicted wound, the false language inserted by Bennet late in the game, but also completed in a rush to meet a self-imposed deadline so the editorial could be posted online on the night that Scalise was shot and printed in the next morning's newspaper. Bennet testified he had initially sought to write notes to guide his editors' approach but decided to re-write the editorial significantly in order to get the piece in on time.

"If you don't weigh in on the day of a major event, you're really behind the curve in terms of being a daily newspaper and being current," the Times' Elizabeth Williamson, who wrote the original draft of the editorial, testified last week.

Editorial pages typically have earlier deadlines than the front pages of news sections because they are less likely to be addressing unfolding events. Yet Bennet has testified he was urged by A.G. Sulzberger, now the paper's publisher, to disrupt conventional practices.

Even so, the image emerged of a team of journalists who cared deeply about getting the facts right and presenting them fairly, though they were charged with crafting pieces reflecting the unsigned opinion of the newspaper as an institution. (The opinion and news departments of the paper operate separately.)

Linda Cohn, at the time an editor in the opinion section who was involved in the editing process, was asked who ultimately was responsible for fact-checking it. She replied that it starts with the writer: "Reporting is in a way a form of fact-checking."

"Everyone who reads it, up through the copy editor, has some role," she added. "It's a shared responsibility."

It was clear throughout the days of testimony how badly the journalists felt when they registered the editorial was not accurate or fair to Palin. Cohn described feeling "horrible." Williamson testified that Bennet was "crestfallen."

A practice never to say "sorry"

Palin's attorneys sought to portray Bennet as a paragon of the establishment, confirming that he was validated by some of the nation's leading institutions. He earned top marks at St. Albans' preparatory school in Washington, D.C. and Yale University, and got internships in the 1980s with a Democratic senator and The New Republic. Bennet also acknowledged campaigning for several weeks in 2010 for his brother, Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado.

After a series of controversies, James Bennet left the newspaper in June 2020.

At the end of Tuesday's questioning, Bennet was asked why the paper had not formally apologized to Palin. No such contrition appeared in print or on its website, even after a correction was appended the day after it was first posted.

Bennet noted that he had attempted to issue an apology to Palin through CNN reporter Oliver Darcy; that element was removed from his response by the newspaper's PR staff. Then Bennet explained a practice by the newspaper that may not make sense to non-journalists, or those serving on the jury, for that matter.

"That policy was not apologizing for corrections," he testified Tuesday. "It was a long-standing policy although one of which I was unaware until after this." He said that a ritual expression of regret on each mistake would render them meaningless.

"The feeling of the standards editors, I think, was that of course The Times regrets its errors," Bennet explained. "They're correcting them. That's an extremely painful thing for the journalists and is an expression of regret."

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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.
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