Margaret Sullivan: The Existential Dread of Journalists Watching the Sarah Palin Trial

From a Washington Post media column by Margaret Sullivan headlined “The existential dread of journalists watching the Sarah Palin trial”:

Every journalist knows the feeling. Your story — or the story you’ve edited — has been published, maybe on a tight deadline, and you realize too late that it contains a mistake. Cue the stages of grief: Defensive disbelief. Horror. Resignation. Self-flagellation. And finally, a humiliating correction notice permanently branded on your work.

The error could be something small and careless, like a misspelled name. It could be substantial; I still remember all too vividly an error I made decades ago, as a rookie Buffalo News business reporter, when I calculated the probable cost of a building renovation and got it wrong.

Or it could be worse: a catastrophe in the making. That was the case with then-New York Times opinion editor James Bennet’s work on an editorial in 2017, which introduced errors that prompted Sarah Palin to sue the paper for defamation. The former Alaska governor and vice-presidential candidate’s lawsuit is being litigated this week in a Manhattan courtroom — a high-profile trial that could have consequences not only for Palin and the Times but for press rights in the United States.

Covering the trial Wednesday, my colleagues Sarah Ellison and Elahe Izadi provided a description of how the error originated and metastasized:

James Bennet said he had “a million other things going on” when a fellow editor stopped by his office at the New York Times to tell him about weaknesses in a draft of an editorial they were rushing to publish on a June evening in 2017.

Bennet agreed that the opinion piece could be stronger and sharper. With a looming deadline on his mind, he decided to rewrite it himself rather than send it back to the author for revisions.

In doing so, he inserted a bad mistake: he used the word “incitement” to describe how Palin’s political rhetoric was linked to a 2011 mass shooting. In fact, no such link has ever been established.

Bennet testified this week that he learned of his mistake the night the editorial published. He tried to reach the writer to discuss it, but she had gone to bed after reviewing his version. Although Bennet couldn’t sleep, he waited until the next morning to deal with the crisis; eventually, the Times published two correction notes.

But Palin says the harm to her reputation was already done, a contention that Times attorneys are busy disputing in court. A jury will decide who’s right about that — whether Bennet and the paper are guilty of “reckless disregard” for the truth and Palin is owed compensation, or whether this was a case of sloppiness and bad judgment, falling short of defaming a public figure.

As Seth Stevenson wrote in Slate: “For anyone who’s ever worked in the media, it’s an eminently relatable disaster.” And he makes a salient point in observing that, at its heart, the case is “about a journalist on deadline, desperately searching for a hot take.”

That’s troubling. It means that in this competitive, fast-paced digital era of rushing stories out ASAP, we’re likely to get more mistakes like this. It’s hard to slow down when your competitors are publishing right now.

But it’s hugely important to do so. With the reality-based press under attack, mistrusted and unpopular, journalists really need to pause before publishing and make sure they get even small details right.

When it comes to credibility, speed kills.

There was no real need — no journalistic imperative — to write an editorial on a tight deadline. No one was breathlessly awaiting the Times editorial page’s immediate wisdom on the precipitating event, horrendous as it was: a mass shooting targeting members of Congress….

That may well have been a worthy subject for an editorial, but as NPR’s Steve Inskeep told me recently, “There’s almost no story that isn’t improved by holding it for a day.” That’s not always possible with breaking news, but it certainly was advisable in this case. What if Bennet had said to his colleague: “You’re right. I want to work on that. I’ll look at it tomorrow.”

There are also internal power dynamics at work here. The big boss (Bennet, in this case) decides to “improve” a subordinate’s work, and she basically yields to his judgment. The subordinate in this case was editorial writer Elizabeth Williamson; in something of an understatement, she testified that she wishes she had read over Bennet’s revisions more carefully.

Over the past 10 years, I’ve been a sometimes tough critic of the New York Times. From 2012 to 2016, I was the paper’s public editor. My job, as internal critic and reader representative, was to investigate complaints about or problems with Times journalism, and write about them. The paper eliminated the position about a year after I left.

Since 2016, I’ve been the media columnist at The Washington Post, and, in that role, I have written both critically and admiringly about my former employer.

I can say with certainty that the editing standards at the Times are high and that the journalists there are intent on getting things right and, when necessary, correcting factual inaccuracies. Copy editors there frequently saved me from my own errors before publication, as editors have done in every newsroom I’ve ever worked at.

Human beings mess up. Sometimes badly. When journalists are rushing, when they are under pressure — including self-imposed pressure — to make something more pointed, the likelihood of messing up increases exponentially.

It’s impossible for me to believe that James Bennet inserted mistakes on purpose when he made that fatefully aggressive rewrite.

But it’s all too possible to understand, with nightmarish clarity and dread, exactly how and why it happened.

Margaret Sullivan is The Washington Post’s media columnist. Previously, she was the New York Times public editor, and the chief editor of the Buffalo News, her hometown paper.

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