Former ‘New York Times’ Editor Testifies About Sarah Palin Op-Ed: ‘It’s My Fault’

The former editor of the New York Times opinion sections James Bennet testified Tuesday that he accepted full responsibility for a passage in a June 2017 op-ed that incorrectly linked former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin to the deadly shooting in Arizona that left a Democratic congresswoman seriously injured.

The op-ed inspired Palin to file a libel suit against The temperature and Bennet which has lasted for more than four and a half years.

“It’s my fault,” Bennet said. “I wrote these sentences and I’m not trying to put the blame on anyone else. I just want it recorded.”

When asked if he had been formally reprimanded, Bennet revealed that he had apologized and taken full responsibility for the errors to the New York Times Co. board. The editorial went on to say was corrected the day after it was first published. But Bennet admitted that he did not apologize directly to Palin, although he testified that he sought to do so without success in commenting to a CNN reporter.

Bennet was deliberate and measured on the stand. He also seemed well trained, often only answering “yes” or “no.” Lawyers for The temperature called his actions an “honest mistake”.

Yet Palin’s lead attorney, Shane Vogt, circled Bennet like a boxer, offering none of the niceties granted to previous newspaper witnesses and spicing him for his failures to carefully research his claims. During the trial, Vogt explored the involvement of other journalists on the editorial page, but always reverted to Bennet’s role.

The trial, taking place in a midtown Manhattan federal courtroom, offers a wavering seminar on libel law, journalism ethics and the finer and sometimes ugly details of publishing. a daily. Much of the questioning centered on who commissioned, wrote, researched, edited, reviewed and approved the editorial itself – and what happened as it became increasingly clear that the language of the editorial on Palin was wrong.

And yet, much of the clashes between Palin’s lawyers and those of the Time and Bennet focused on the former editor himself – what he could reasonably expect to know, what he could reasonably expect to have read, and the extent to which his professional ties and families could be used against him.

The Times editorial, titled “America’s Lethal Politics,” was published late on the day of a shooting that nearly claimed the life of Republican Representative Steve Scalise of Louisiana. He argued for more gun control and warned of the dangers of heated political rhetoric.

The play retreated into left-leaning Scalise gunman politics with the earlier shooting in Arizona, which killed six people and seriously injured then-U.S. Representative Gabby Giffords, a Democrat. the Time the editorial said Palin’s political action committee created a gun crosshair graphic on Gifford and other Democratic lawmakers in a fundraising pitch; Bennett’s revisions led to a line that “the link to political incitement was clear”.

In fact, no such link had been found, as reported by an ABC News article to which the op-ed was linked. And the targeting symbols were placed on congressional districts, not the lawmakers themselves, as the editorial erroneously implied.

Accused of clinging to a ‘narrative’ despite the facts

The statements raised concerns within the newsroom and fueled public outrage. The next day the Time corrected the editorial twice. Bennet tweeted 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 implicating the departing former governor “and stayed with it, no matter what was presented to him, no matter 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 of Atlantic to suggest animosity against Palin. They pointed to blog posts on the magazine’s site Threadin which opinion columnist Andrew Sullivan wrote caustically about Palin. Bennet said he did not recall reading specific articles by Sullivan, or any coverage of the Tucson shooting that reversed any connection between the shooter and Palin’s political action committee ads. Vogt pointed to the contrast between Bennet’s efforts to pin down the facts once objections arose after the editorial was published, rather than before.

Palin’s libel lawsuit is not only dramatic but rare: such cases are normally dismissed or resolved by settlement. Media and First Amendment advocates say they are aware of the implications for the press’s ability to scrutinize public figures. Still, some legal scholars say the current precedent makes it difficult to force the media to take responsibility for their mistakes. Bennet is due to testify again on Wednesday; Palin’s own testimony is expected later.

A rush to post became a self-inflicted wound

There were so many times when the false claim could have been prevented. 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 op-ed could go live the night Scalise a been cut down and printed. in the next morning’s paper. Bennet testified that he initially sought to write notes to guide his editors’ approach, but decided to rewrite the editorial significantly in order to publish the article on time.

“If you don’t weigh in on the day of a major event, you’re really behind in terms of being a daily and being up to date,” said the Time‘ Elizabeth Williamson, who wrote the original draft of the editorial, testified last week.

Editorial pages generally have shorter timelines than the front pages of news sections because they are less likely to deal with current events. Yet Bennet testified that he was urged by AG Sulzberger, now the newspaper’s publisher, to disrupt conventional practices.

Even so, the image emerged of a team of reporters intent on understanding the facts and presenting them fairly, even though they were tasked with writing stories that reflected the unsigned opinion of the newspaper as an institution. (The newspaper’s opinion and news departments operate separately.)

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

“Everyone who reads it, right down to the editor, has a part to play,” she added. “It’s a shared responsibility.”

It was clear throughout the days of testimony how bad news reporters felt when they recorded the editorial was not accurate or fair to Palin. Cohn described feeling “awful”. Williamson testified that Bennet was “discomfited”.

A practice to never say “sorry”

Palin’s lawyers have sought to paint Bennet as a paragon of the establishment, confirming that he is validated by some of the nation’s top institutions. He got top grades 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 Senator Michael Bennet of Colorado.

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

At the end of Tuesday’s interrogation, Bennet was asked why the newspaper had not formally apologized to Palin. No such contrition appeared in print or on its website, even after a correction was added the day after it was first published.

Bennet noted that he attempted to apologize to Palin through CNN reporter Oliver Darcy; this item was removed from his response by the newspaper’s public relations staff. Next, Bennet explained a newspaper practice that may not make sense to non-journalists, or those on the jury, for that matter.

“This policy was not about apologizing for corrections,” he said Tuesday. “It was a long-standing policy, although I had no knowledge of it before that.” He said a ritual expression of regret for every mistake would render them meaningless.

“The feeling from the standards editors, I think, was that of course The temperature regrets his mistakes,” Bennett explained. “They correct them. It is an extremely painful thing for journalists and it is an expression of regret.”

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