N.Y. Times ex-editor denies trying to blame Sarah Palin for congresswoman’s shooting

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NEW YORK (Reuters) -The former New York Times editor who oversaw the 2017 editorial underlying Sarah Palin’s defamation lawsuit against the newspaper on Wednesday denied trying to blame the prominent Republican for the 2011 mass shooting that seriously wounded former U.S. congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords.

James Bennet testified that changes he made to a draft of the editorial, which the Times later corrected, were not intended to hold either the former Alaska governor and 2008 Republican U.S. vice presidential candidate or her political action committee responsible for the shooting.

“Did you intend to cause Ms. Palin any harm through any of your edits to the draft?” the Times’ lawyer David Axelrod asked Bennet, a former Times editorial page editor, during the trial’s fifth day in Manhattan federal court.

“No, I didn’t,” Bennet responded.

Bennet also said “no” when asked if he tried to blame Palin or the political action committee. Bennet said he moved quickly to correct the editorial as criticism mounted that its wording suggested they were to blame.

“We don’t promise to be perfect, we promise to try our damnedest to be perfect, and when we’re not we try to fix it,” Bennet testified.

The trial is a test of longstanding legal protections for U.S. media against defamation claims by public figures.

To win, the 57-year-old Palin must prove that Bennet and the Times acted with “actual malice,” https://www.reuters.com/article/uk-new-york-times-palin-idUKKBN25O31B meaning they knew the editorial was false or had reckless disregard for the truth.

Palin sued over a June 14, 2017, editorial, headlined “America’s Lethal Politics,” that addressed gun control and lamented the deterioration of political discourse. It was written after a shooting at a Virginia baseball field where congressman Steve Scalise, a Louisiana Republican, was wounded.

The editorial referred to the January 2011 shooting in an Arizona parking lot by gunman Jared Lee Loughner where six people died and Giffords, then a Democratic congresswoman, was among those wounded.

It referred to Palin’s political action committee having earlier circulated a map that put Giffords and 19 other Democrats under cross hairs.


Bennet added incorrect language that said “the link to political incitement was clear” between the map and the Giffords shooting. The editorial was corrected the next day.

In Wednesday’s testimony, Bennet maintained that he added the language while under deadline pressure, thinking that the growth of “highly charged political rhetoric” could prompt such incidents.

Bennet denied adding the language in order to suggest Loughner used the cross hairs map.

“If I thought it caused the violence, I would have used the word ’cause,'” Bennet said.

Bennet said he was “alarmed” when conservative Times columnist Ross Douthat emailed less than an hour after the editorial ran that it appeared to link Palin to the Giffords shooting. Some readers also complained.

“We were really, really harshly criticized for muddying the record,” Bennet said, “I thought it was urgent to correct the piece as forthrightly as possible, to acknowledge our mistake. This is basic practice. It’s the right thing to do.”

Lawyers for Palin have tried to show that the correction was too slow, and noted several times that it did not mention her.

Palin’s lawyer Shane Vogt questioned Bennet about why the correction omitted his role in crafting the editorial.

Bennet testified on Tuesday that the Times does not apologize for corrections but he thought its correction served as an apology to Palin, even if she did not take it that way.

“I have regretted this pretty much every day since,” Bennet said on Wednesday.

Palin has signaled that if she loses at trial, she will on appeal challenge a landmark 1964 U.S. Supreme Court decision, New York Times v Sullivan, that established the actual malice standard.

Bennet was the fifth current or former Times employee called by Palin’s lawyers to testify. Palin is expected to testify at the trial.