Sarah Palin briefly took the stand in her libel trial against the New York Times on Wednesday, while the editor responsible for inserting incorrect language in a 2017 op-ed said that he “felt terrible” about the mistake, but denied that it was intentional.
The trial in a New York federal court has been moving rather briskly and has drawn attention as it is one of the rare instances of a major public figure to take a news outlet to trial, given the high bar that plaintiffs face in showing that a publication engaged in malice or reckless disregard for the truth.
Palin sued the Times in 2017 over an editorial that she said falsely linked her political rhetoric to the 2011 Tucson shootings in which six people were killed and congresswoman Gabby Giffords was severely wounded. The Times corrected the editorial and also conceded that it had incorrectly characterized a map from Palin’s political action committee that featured crosshairs over certain Democrats’ electoral districts, including Giffords’.
In her testimony, Palin gave biographical details before Judge Jed Rakoff adjourned the proceedings for the day.
Earlier, James Bennet, former opinion editor for the Times, said that the incorrect op-ed was “my failure,” given that he had added the wording that linked the “political incitement” of Palin’s political action committee to Jared Lee Loughner, who in the 2017 shooting opened fire on the supermarket parking lot.
Bennet testified that they decided to do the editorial on the morning of June 14, 2017, in the hours after James Hodgkinson opened fire on several Republican members of Congress who had been engaging in practice for a softball game, seriously wounding Rep. Steve Scalise (R-LA).
The original version of the editorial, headlined America’s Lethal Politics, read, “Was this attack evidence of how vicious American politics has become? Probably. In 2011, when Jared Lee Loughner opened fire in a supermarket parking lot, grievously wounding Representative Gabby Giffords and killing six people, including a 9-year-old girl, the link to political incitement was clear. Before the shooting, Sarah Palin’s political action committee circulated a map of targeted electoral districts that put Ms. Giffords and 19 other Democrats under stylized crosshairs.”
As it turned out, there was no connection established between the crosshairs map and the Arizona shooting.
The next day, following complaints, the Times revised the online version of the editorial to remove suggestion that there was a link between the crosshairs map and the shooting. It also corrected the description of the map to say that the crosshairs appeared over Giffords’ district, not over her name or image.
Bennet said that, against the pressure of a deadline, he inserted the language himself, but it was not his intent for the word “incitement” to mean that the Palin PAC’s map was the cause of Loughner’s action, but that it was a broader use of the term. He said that he meant that there was a “simply a connection to this larger environment,” not that Palin’s group was responsible.
“If I thought it caused violence, I would have used the word ’cause,’ and it would have saved me a few words,” Bennet said.
Later that evening, after the editorial posted online, he received an email from Ross Douthat, a Times conservative columnist, who wrote that he read it as meaning that, in fact, Loughner’s actions were due to the Palin PAC map.
“I was very concerned,” Bennet said. “I was alarmed that he was reading that editorial that Loughner was incited by Sarah Palin or anyone else. I have a lot of respect for Ross and his judgment.”
Early the next morning, Bennet sent an email to the writer of the editorial, Elizabeth Williamson, and a fact checker, to look into the Palin language.
Bennet resigned from the Times in 2020.
He testified that he thought he had apologized to Palin for the error, but it was not directly. It was in response to questions from CNN’s Oliver Darcy. Bennet’s apology, however, apparently was removed by Times communications staff, so Darcy never got it, per the Washington Post.
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