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New York Times editorial page editor James Bennet testified Wednesday in an open hearing that he did not mean to imply a “causal link” between a political action committee tied to former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and a 2011 attack on a then-congresswoman and others.
Palin, who served as John McCain’s running mate in the 2008 presidential election, sued the Times on June 27 over a June 14 editorial that, before it was corrected, said that “the link to political incitement was clear” between a graphic produced by Palin’s PAC and the murderous rampage of Jared Loughner. In Palin’s suit, it was argued that the Times defamed her by suggesting that Loughner acted against then-Rep. Gabrielle Giffords because a “stylized target” was placed over her district by the PAC as one to target for electoral gain.
Wednesday’s hearing was held for a judge to gather more information about the context and motives of the individuals involved in the case. The Times has moved to dismiss the case, and the judge reiterated that he plans to make a decision on that motion by the end of the month.
Bennet, during the hearing, revealed that he was not the primary writer of the editorial, but substantially rewrote the draft that was submitted to him by a Washington, D.C.-based editorial writer, Elizabeth Williamson. Williamson was not available to testify on Wednesday, but the judge asked both parties to decide if they’d like her to testify in the near future.
“What I wasn’t trying to say was that there was a direct causal link between this map and the shooting,” Bennet said. “What I was concerned about was the overall climate of political incitement.”
He continued: “I didn’t mean to suggest that Loughner wasn’t responsible. … I did not think that Jared Loughner was acting because of this map.”
Bennet testified that he had not, in advance of publication, read specific pieces of reporting in the Times about a potential connection between the PAC ad and the shooting, and said he did not know at the time of publication whether Loughner had seen the map. He also said that he had not personally seen the map. “I was not reporting the editorial, your honor, I was editing it,” Bennet said.
He also shared some insights into how the editorial, which ran the same day as an attack on several congressmen in D.C., came to be. He suggested that a rush to hit the newspaper’s deadlines might have contributed in part to the editorial being published before the topic of political incitement and actual violence had been thoroughly researched.
Bennet said that he became extremely concerned about the content of the editorial late on the night of June 14, after seeing criticisms of it on social media, and spent the early hours of June 15 frantically attempting to have his team determine whether a connection between the Palin PAC and the shooter’s motives actually existed. The Times apologized and placed multiple corrections on the piece, proclaiming that no connection has been found, and that the PAC graphic simply placed a target over Giffords‘ district map, not over a photo of the congresswoman.
Because Palin is a public figure, her legal team must prove that the Times either knew its statements in the editorial were false, or that they showed reckless disregard for the truth in publishing it. That could mean the paper was negligent by disregarding reporting about a lack of link between the PAC’s graphic and Loughner’s decision to shoot at Giffords and others. In past disputes, courts have ruled that a mere failure to investigate doesn’t rise to reckless disregard of truth.
Bennet, who came to the Times from The Atlantic, is the brother of Colorado U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet. A lawyer for Palin asked him if he was aware at the time that Palin had endorsed his brother’s opponent, seemingly suggesting that the editorial could have been an act of political retribution.
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