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New York Times editor testifies in Sarah Palin defamation suit

Former Alaska governor and GOP vice presidential candidate

Former Alaska governor and GOP vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin is shown in this Sept. 5, 2011 photo. Photo Credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS / Evan Agostini

The New York Times editor responsible for a June 14 editorial linking a Sarah Palin political ad to “incitement” of the 2011 shooting of Rep. Gaby Giffords testified in Palin’s libel suit Wednesday that he read no clips on the shooting before making the claim.

Editorial page editor James Bennet also said in a Manhattan federal court hearing he never looked at the Palin ad which the Times mistakenly said put crosshairs over Giffords herself, and wasn’t “reporting” when he retooled a draft of the editorial on Rep. Steve Scalise’s shooting in Virginia.

“It was late in the day and our deadlines were looming,” Bennet testified at the hearing before U.S. District Judge Jed Rakoff. “I wound up just plunging in and effectively rewriting the piece.”

The editorial after Scalise’s shooting focused on causes of political violence. It described a 2011 map from Palin’s political committee with crosshairs over targeted districts including Giffords’ in Arizona as a “political incitement” for shooter Jared Loughner that was “clear” and “direct.”

There’s no evidence Loughner saw the map. Within a day, the Times corrected the incitement claim and its map description, but did not apologize to Palin. As a public figure, she must prove malice — that the Times knew its claims were false or had reckless disregard for the truth.

The Times has moved to dismiss the case, claiming it was an “honest mistake.” Rakoff, in an unusual move, said he wanted to hear testimony from the person who wrote the editorial before deciding whether Palin’s lawyers have enough to go forward with their case.

Bennet, a former top editor at The Atlantic magazine and the brother of Colorado’s Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet, said that after he reworked a draft from staffer Elizabeth Williamson and cleared it for publication, he had no knowledge the claims in the editorial were untrue.

“No, I didn’t,” he testified. “I believed them to be true.”

Bennet also said that he never meant “causation” by the word “incitement,” and was instead trying to describe rhetoric that inflamed the political “atmosphere.”

“I was looking for a very strong word to write about the political climate because I wanted to get our readers’ attention,” he testified. Bennet acknowledged, however, that he hadn’t done much checking in advance. He had Williamson pull previous editorials on the Giffords shooting, he testified, but never read them. He used her description of the map, he said, but didn’t look at it.

He also said he didn’t click on a hyperlink in Williamson’s draft to past ABC stories that said no link had been established between Loughner and the ad, he said, and didn’t consult the Times’ own coverage that day that said “no connection” to Palin was established in the Giffords case.

According to a copy of the version Bennet edited, a line that suggested Loughner’s “rage was nurtured in a vile political climate” and that Palin had been “criticized” in 2011 was changed to assert a “link to political incitement.” As criticism mounted on social media, Bennet said, he alerted Times researchers at 5 a.m. to look into the Loughner-Palin issue, and also read the Times’ coverage, leading to the correction.

“I had created an ambiguity that people were reading to say something we didn’t mean to say,” he said. “That’s not their fault. That’s not our fault. That’s a mistake.”

Palin’s lawyers, who claim the Times attacked because she is a “reviled” target who is clickbait for a liberal audience, declined to comment after the hearing, as did Times lawyers. Bennet, asked if it was “unfortunate” that he didn’t do more research, said he couldn’t comment.

Rakoff said he will decide whether to allow the case to continue by the end of August.

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