New York Times editorial page editor James Bennet testified Wednesday that he did not intend to draw a “direct causal link” between a map distributed by Sarah Palin’s political action committee and the 2011 shooting of then-Rep. Gabby Giffords (D-Ariz.).
Bennet said he was looking at the overall political climate and exploring the line between heated rhetoric and incitement in a June 14, 2017, editorial that referenced the Palin map. The editorial was written in response to the congressional baseball practice shooting that morning in which Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.) and others were wounded.
The editor’s testimony is part of a court hearing in Manhattan to determine if Palin’s lawsuit against the Times raises “sufficient allegations of actual malice” to proceed. In other words, can Palin even plausibly argue that the Times didn’t just make mistakes, but acted with malice toward her or with reckless disregard for the truth? U.S. District Judge Jed Rakoff has said he intends to rule later this month on the Times’ motion to dismiss the suit.
The June 14 editorial quickly drew criticism and prompted two corrections. The editorial stated incorrectly, as the Times acknowledged, that “the link to political incitement was clear” in the Giffords case. In fact, there is no evidence that the shooter, Jared Loughner, was targeting Giffords because of the map ― or that he had ever seen it.
The editorial also wrongly asserted that the former congresswoman and 19 other Democrats were shown in the cross hairs on the Palin map. The Times corrected the piece to note that the cross hairs appeared over electoral districts, not specific politicians.
On the witness stand, Bennet recalled drawing some inspiration for the editorial from colleague Thomas Friedman’s August 2016 column tying together then-candidate Donald Trump’s talk of a “Second Amendment” solution to Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton and the 1995 assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.
The Friedman column is not mentioned in the June 14 editorial, titled “America’s Lethal Politics.” Bennet said Wednesday that the article was intended to hit three main points: “the horror” of the Scalise shooting, the paper’s position on “sensible gun control” and concerns about heated political rhetoric.
Bennet, who returned to the Times last year as editorial page editor, said he asked Washington-based editorial writer Elizabeth Williamson, the original author of the piece, to revisit the paper’s stances around the 2011 Giffords shooting.
Williamson filed a draft to Bennet around 5 p.m. by his account, and he significantly rewrote it before publication. Bennet said he didn’t discuss the edits with Williamson prior to publication because “deadlines were looming.”
Much of Wednesday’s hearing centered on establishing what information Bennet had known while writing the editorial.
Bennet said he had not read the 2011 editorials that a Times researcher sent to Williamson as she prepared the first draft of the piece or a 2011 ABC News article to which the online version of the Times editorial linked. Bennet also said he had not read a June 14 news article by Times reporter Alexander Burns that mentioned how “no connection” was ever established between the Palin map and the Giffords shooting.
Bennet said he “didn’t know one way or another” at the time of publication whether there was an established link between the Palin map and the 2011 shooting.
Palin attorney Ken Turkel also tried to establish whether Bennet had recalled specific coverage of the Giffords shooting when writing the June 14 editorial, presumably to determine whether the editor should have known any particular information to be false prior to publication.
For instance, Turkel asked if Bennet recalled a 2011 dispute between commentator Andrew Sullivan ― whose “Daily Dish” blog was then published by The Atlantic ― and a Financial Times writer over linking Palin to the Giffords shooting. Bennet, who was The Atlantic’s top editor at the time, said he didn’t recall the matter when he was rewriting the Times editorial. He pointed out that Sullivan “had editorial control of The Daily Dish” and didn’t need to report such matters to him.
Turkel also asked Bennet if he’d recalled, while reworking the editorial, that Palin had endorsed the GOP challenger to his brother, Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), in that year’s election. “If I had known that, I didn’t remember it,” the editor said, while adding that he wouldn’t have been surprised that Palin backed the Republican candidate.
Judge Rakoff asked both sides to respond in writing to Wednesday’s hearing and said it was still to be determined if Williamson, who was unavailable this week, would need to testify in the pretrial proceeding.