A New York Times editorial that Sarah Palin said linked her to a 2011 mass shooting was intended to communicate that the incident was a product of a charged political atmosphere, not that it was caused directly by the former Alaska governor’s rhetoric, the editor of the Times’ editorial page said on Wednesday.
James Bennet, who served as editor-in-chief of The Atlantic for a decade before joining the Times last year, said during testimony in a hearing for Palin’s defamation suit against the Times that he wrote the final version of a June 14 editorial called “America’s Lethal Politics,” which Palin said in a defamation complaint tied her to the mass shooting in Tucson, Arizona, that resulted in six deaths and the wounding of U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Arizona.
The editorial was released the same day a gunman opened fire on a Virginia baseball diamond during a practice session preceding a charity baseball game featuring Republican members of Congress and former and current congressional staffers.
The original version of the Times editorial linked the attack to Giffords’ shooting and to a map distributed by Palin’s political action committee prior to the Arizona shooting showing congressional districts under crosshairs.
The Times twice corrected the editorial to state that there was no connection between the two shooting attacks and that the map distributed before the Arizona shooting portrayed congressional districts under crosshairs, not Democratic lawmakers themselves.
“I had created an ambiguity that people were reading to say something we didn’t mean to say,” Bennet said. “That’s not their fault, that’s not our fault. That’s a mistake.” But Bennet also said on the stand that he did not review the target map before the editorial ran nor did he review past stories gathered as research material for the editorial.
Bennet said that Elizabeth Williamson, a Times editorial writer, prepared the first draft of “America’s Lethal Politics,” but said he largely re-wrote the piece in order to meet the paper’s deadline.
In the Virginia shooting earlier this year, U.S. Rep. Steve Scalise, R-Louisiana, was seriously wounded.
James Hodgkinson, the shooter, died in a gun battle with police. Hodgkinson, according to media reports, had used social media to express anger toward President Donald Trump and was a former volunteer in the Democratic primary campaign of U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont.
Southern District Judge Jed Rakoff is considering a motion to dismiss filed on behalf of the Times by attorneys from Levine Sullivan Koch & Schulz arguing that Palin has not proved actual malice on the part of the Times, considered a high hurdle for plaintiffs to clear when seeking to sue media organizations for defamation.
Rakoff said that the purpose of having Bennet testify was to gather context for the case, not to assess his credibility. He said he plans to rule on the motion to dismiss by the end of the month.
Palin—the 2008 Republican nominee for vice president—is represented by Kenneth Turkel and Shane Vogt of the Tampa, Florida-based Bajo Cuva Cohen & Turkel, as well as Shawn Ricardo of Golenbock Eiseman Assor Bell & Peskoe.
The Levine Sullivan team representing the Times includes David Schulz, Michael Sullivan, Lee Levine and Jay Brown.