Ex-New York Times editor takes blame for Sarah Palin error at defamation trial

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James Bennet, the former New York Times editorial page editor, said Tuesday that he was at fault for writing language into a 2017 piece falsely asserting a connection between a map circulated by Sarah Palin’s political action committee and a mass shooting that wounded US Rep. Gabby Giffords. 

Bennet took responsibility for the error while testifying at the Manhattan federal court trial in the defamation suit Palin brought against the newspaper over the editorial. 

“This is my fault, right. I wrote those sentences,” Bennet said while responding to questioning by Palin’s attorney, Shane Vogt. 

He took the blame while explaining an email he sent to editorial writer Elizabeth Williamson at 7:22 p.m. on June 14, 2017, the night the editorial was published online with a headline of “America’s Lethal Politics.” 

Williamson had drafted the first iteration of the editorial earlier that day, and Bennet wrote to her to explain he had heavily edited the piece. 

“Really reworked this one. Please take a look. I hope you see what I was trying to do. Thank you for the hard work today and sorry for the heavy edit,” Bennet wrote to Williamson. 

James Bennet
Bennet took responsibility for an error that falsely asserted a connection between Palin’s PAC and a mass shooting that wounded Rep. Gabby Giffords.
AP Photo/Larry Neumeister
Sarah Palin
Palin brought a defamation lawsuit against the New York Times following the publishing of the editorial.
MEGA

Vogt asked Bennet if he had requested Williamson fact check his changes, and Bennet pointed to the line in the email that stated “please take a look.” 

He then quickly said the error was solely his fault. “I’m not trying to shift the blame to anyone else,” Bennet said. 

The editorial was published the same day a gunman opened fire on GOP members of Congress, wounding Rep. Steve Scalise, at a Northern Virginia baseball diamond. 

The piece sought to make a point that there was a pattern of violence against members of Congress — on both sides of the political spectrum — due to a culture of heated political rhetoric, Bennet said. 

To make the point in the editorial, Bennet asserted that prior to the Virginia shooting, the gunman who opened fire on Rep. Giffords and others in 2011 was politically incited, in part because of a map Palin’s PAC had circulated. 

The map showed congressional districts, including Giffords’, with stylized cross hairs that resembled a rifle’s sights over them.  

“The link to the political incitement was clear,” the editorial said of the 2011 shooting. 

Former Rep. Gabby Giffords, of Arizona, who survived an assassination attempt in 2011, joins other Democrats in a call for action on gun safety legislation on the House steps at the Capitol in Washington.
Former Rep. Gabby Giffords survived an assassination attempt in 2011.
AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File

“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 cross hairs,” the next sentence of the editorial went on.

A link between the gunman from Arizona and politics was never established and the idea it was linked to the cross hairs map was debunked years prior to the editorial. 

A columnist at the Times, Ross Douthat, informed Bennet that he’d published the error in an email the same night it went live online. 

The next morning, Bennet emailed his colleagues on the editorial page soon after 5 a.m., and they worked up a correction to the piece that was published that morning. 

The New York Times building
The New York Times issued a correction shortly after the editorial was published.
AFP via Getty Images

Before he took the stand Tuesday, Linda Cohn, another editorial page editor who worked on the piece, testified she was devastated that they’d included the error. 

“Getting anything wrong as an editor — it’s just one of the worst feelings ever,” she told the jury. 

“You feel horrible. You never want to have anything in the paper you have to correct. It leads to many sleepless nights after,” she said. 

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