Attorneys for Sarah Palin and the New York Times put the newspaper’s editorial sausage-making process under examination today, as a Manhattan federal district court judge heard testimony about how, exactly, one particularly gristly bite came into being.
Insisting he did not intend to imply a “causal link” between the 2011 mass shooting that left Rep. Gabby Giffords of Arizona severely wounded and a notorious “crosshairs” map distributed by a Sarah Palin PAC, Times editorial page editor James Bennet took the court through an exhaustively detailed parsing of a recent editorial that the former VP candidate claims was defamatory.
Bennet, who wrote the most objectionable portions of the editorial being challenged by Palin’s lawsuit, said he in no way meant to suggest that shooter “was acting because of this map.”
The map, distributed by a Palin PAC prior to the 2011 Giffords shooting that left six people dead, depicted targeted electoral districts in rifle-style crosshairs. No proof has been uncovered that the shooter actually saw the map before he went on his spree in a supermarket parking lot. More than a dozen people were wounded.
The Giffords shooting was referenced in a Times editorial two months ago following the June 14 shooting of Louisiana Rep. Steve Scalise and other congressmen during practice for a charity baseball game. In an editorial about irresponsible political rhetoric and “incitement” to violence, the Times offered as an example that the Palin PAC had “circulated a map of targeted electoral districts that put Ms. Giffords and 19 other Democrats under stylized crosshairs.”
The Times subsequently issued a correction stating that no such link ever was established between the Giffords shooting and the Palin map. “An earlier version of this editorial incorrectly stated that a link existed between political incitement and the 2011 shooting of Representative Gabby Giffords,” the Times wrote. “In fact, no such link was established.” The Times then tweeted this:
Palin, who did not attend today’s evidentiary hearing before Judge Jed S. Rakoff of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, claims the Times published the editorial it “knew to be false” and so “violated the law and its own policies.”
The hearing, which Rakoff himself called unusual, was intended to give what the judge called “context” to the Times‘ editorial decision-making as he weighs a motion by the paper to dismiss Palin’s defamation suit. He is expected to rule on the dismissal by the end of the month.
Among the topics raised by Palin’s attorneys today was whether Bennet and his team were aware of other Times articles and media accounts that contradicted any link between the Palin PAC map and the shooting.
To get there, though, attorneys for both side walked Bennet through a detailed examination of how the editorial was written — and by whom. Editorials written under the Times‘ editorial board imprimatur carry no specific bylines. Indeed, authorship is regarded as something akin to classified information.
At least until today. Bennet told the court that, although a first draft of the June 14 editorial was written by staffer Elizabeth Williamson, he himself heavily rewrote the piece and contributed the specific language being challenged by Palin.
The editorial, headlined “America’s Lethal Politics,” was intended to convey three essential points, Bennet said: To “focus on the horror” of the softball practice shooting; to reiterate the Times’ longstanding favor of sensible gun control; and to examine “the state of political rhetoric,” specifically the treating of political opponents as “enemies.”
Williamson’s original version, Bennet said, “was very much a first draft” that did not accomplish those directives and read more like “a summary” of the day’s news. On a tight deadline, Bennet rewrote the piece rather than send it back to Williamson, adding mention of “incitement.”
“I was looking for a very strong word about our political climate to get readers’ attention,” Bennet said. Incitement, he added, was a word that harkened to his days on the Israel-Palestinian conflict beat, conjuring notions of “summonses and orders for political attacks.”
But Bennet insisted that the phrasing was meant to connect the current political climate and its rhetoric to the victims of violence, and not to say that any particular “political piece” incited “a maniac” like the shooter.
In resurrecting the Giffords incident, Bennet said he “wanted to be sure we didn’t look like hypocrites” by having criticized a “right-wing” shooter and not “calling out” the Scalise shooter, who was a Bernie Sanders supporter.
Kenneth Turkel, one of Palin’s attorneys, raised the issue of Bennet’s personal politics — at least by way of his family. Bennet’s brother is Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet, a Democrat whose opponent was endorsed by Palin in 2016. James Bennet said he isn’t surprised by Palin’s endorsement but that he either didn’t know or didn’t remember it when he wrote the editorial.
Rakoff reiterated his intention to rule on the Times’ dismissal motion and granted the Palin team’s request that various, previous Times editorials used as research by Williamson and Bennet be made available in the next day or so.
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