Sarah Palin Trial Raises Questions About New York Times Editing: “Was James Bennet pushing to adapt to the hotter pulse of the digital age?”

From a Washington Post story by Sarah Ellison headlined “James Bennet testifies as Sarah Palin trial raises questions about New York Times editing”:

When the New York Times welcomed James Bennet back to the fold in April 2016, it was with open arms and great expectations.

“We … knew, or at least hoped, that someday he would return,” said the paper’s then-publisher, Arthur Sulzberger Jr.

Bennet, who was 50 at the time, had practically grown up at the Gray Lady, where he had risen through the reporting ranks to cover the White House and then the Middle East, but he had cinched his reputation in a subsequent job, as the buzz-chasing editor in chief who resuscitated the Atlantic magazine. He was hired back to the Times as editorial page editor with a mandate to shake up the staid opinions section — to “move faster,” one performance review urged, and “make changes that are more disruptive.” Whispers soon followed he was in line to run the entire newspaper.

Nearly six years later, Bennet is once again stepping up for the Times — but his gilded career there is over. On Tuesday, he took the stand in a Manhattan federal courtroom to testify about his role in the editing of a faulty 2017 opinion piece that prompted Sarah Palin to sue for defamation.

There was an immediate tone shift as Bennet took the witness chair in a dark gray suit on the trial’s fourth day. After mostly friendly questioning of Bennet’s former subordinates, Palin’s lawyer Shane Vogt took a harder line, asking if Bennet had been “determined to use the word ‘incitement’” in an editorial linking a Palin campaign message to a 2011 mass shooting.

Bennet denied it. But he took pains to accept responsibility for the error, which the Times corrected hours later.

“This is my fault. I wrote those sentences. I’m not looking to shift the blame,” he said, adding that he wanted to state that “for the record.”

Earlier Tuesday, U.S. District Court Judge Jed S. Rakoff shot down Palin’s efforts to inject more A-list intrigue into the proceedings when he ruled against her legal team’s attempts to introduce evidence regarding Bennet’s brother, Sen. Michael F. Bennet (D-Colo.) — part of an effort to show that the editor harbored animosity against Palin for her support of the senator’s Republican opponent.

The case — the first libel lawsuit against the Times to go to trial in the United States in nearly 20 years — holds the potential to upend decades of precedent that have offered broad protections to media organizations when writing about public figures.

But in its minute and nagging details, the testimony coming out of court this week is also providing an unofficial inquiry into the reputation and career of Bennet and the culture he oversaw of legacy journalism pushing to adapt to the hotter pulse of the digital age.

“He’s a careful journalist and inspiring editor,” Jill Abramson, a former executive editor of the Times who was years ago Bennet’s boss, said. “All that said, the New York Times has long been known as an editor’s paper where there is extensive rewriting of journalists’ stories.”

That seems to have been the case with the opinion piece in question, which was written on a tight deadline in response to a news event that was seizing headlines and emotions in the moment — a gunman’s attack on the baseball practice of a group of congressional Republicans in Alexandria, Va.

Bennet was not the author of the essay. But he edited it — and rewrote key passages in a way that lent it more edge. That was also where error crept in.

Author Elizabeth Williamson had used the incident to write the editorial just hours after the attack. She decried vitriolic political rhetoric that spurs partisans to violence; she also cited the 2011 Tucson mass shooting that killed six people and injured then-Rep. Gabby Giffords (D-Ariz.), and noted that Palin’s political action committee had previously targeted Giffords’s seat for with a map that labeled her district with a stylized crosshairs.

But as Williamson testified last week, Bennet that night added sentences suggesting a direct link between the Palin map and the Tucson shooting (“The link to political incitement was clear”) before her essay was published on the Times’s website.

In fact, investigators had found no indication that the mentally ill shooter was inspired by the map. The Times quickly published a correction. But Palin alleges that her reputation had been sullied by the claim.

Palin, as the former governor of Alaska and 2008 Republican nominee for vice president, faces a steep hurdle: Public figures must demonstrate not only that a statement was defamatory but also that it was made with “actual malice,” the Supreme Court ruled in the landmark New York Times v. Sullivan case in 1964.

Yet two Supreme Court justices, Neil M. Gorsuch and Clarence Thomas, have hinted that they would like to revisit the logic of Sullivan, meaning that even a loss in this trial could send shock waves through the media industry if an appeal makes its way to the high court.

Beyond the legal issues, the courtroom phase of this case is shining a not-always-flattering light on editing practices within one of the most prestigious media outlets in the world.

Bennet testified that he first learned of Williamson’s draft when another editor, Linda Cohn, told him it wasn’t working. When he opened the file to offer notes on how it should be rewritten, he “realized how late in the day it was getting” and started editing it himself, adding his own words — and finishing barely 45 minutes before the newspaper’s print deadline.

He acknowledged that he did not read deeply into the research that had gone into Williamson’s work. And Williamson previously testified that she did not read his rewrite closely enough to notice the error he had inserted. Later that night, Bennet emailed her when he learned his claim about the Palin map was being widely challenged by critics — but Williamson had already gone to bed, and Bennet acknowledged that he did not pursue the matter further until the next morning.

“How did [this error] happen? And what does it say about the New York Times that it did happen?” noted Bill Grueskin, a professor at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, who has extensively studied the case. “Trying to come up with a special angle on this [kind of topic] on deadline is very hard to do — and you have to be careful.”

Bennet seemed especially well equipped to bring the Times’s editorial page up to the speed of a digital-media landscape proliferating with fast, click-worthy opinion pieces. At the Atlantic, he had promoted rising talents such as Ta-Nehisi Coates and published provocative essays such as “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” and “The Case for Reparations” and a reported article on the paparazzi scramble around Britney Spears that generated Web traffic once unimaginable for an intellectual monthly journal. But his managing editor at the Atlantic, Jennifer Barnett, later went public with complaints that he could be hostile and abusive to his staff, undermining the editorial process on an article he had agreed to stay out of because of family connections.

After joining the Times, Bennet moved to broaden the range of viewpoints by hiring conservative voices such as Bret Stephens and Bari Weiss from the Wall Street Journal. Both triggered controversies, in part for their opinion pieces — Stephens debuted with a column skeptical of climate change, Weiss frequently decried the left for “cancel culture” — but often for their social media activity, notably when Stephens complained to a university provost after one of its professors made a mild joke about him on Twitter. Bennet also enmeshed the op-ed page in controversy in 2018 when he hired technology writer Quinn Norton — and within a day cut her loose after Internet sleuths unearthed racist and homophobic slurs she had deployed online as well as her defense of a prominent neo-Nazi.

Bennet told staffers shortly after the incident that these stumbles were a natural outcome of his effort to recruit “different types of writers than we have had traditionally,” according to a report in Vanity Fair. “I’ve lost the capacity to gauge the opprobrium — what’s irrational versus what’s a reasonable amount of Internet outrage these days.”

Amid those controversies, Bennet still enjoyed the support of Times leadership, even though he seemed to have few close allies on the editorial page….

But just days after Bennet gave his deposition in the Palin case, his editorial page published another hot-button essay in June 2020 — this one an op-ed by Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), titled “Send in the Troops.” It created an uproar of its own, with many Times staffers arguing that it included misinformation about “left-wing radicals, like antifa” infiltrating the nationwide racial justice protests spreading across the country that had already been debunked by the Times’s own reporting; Black journalists in particular protested that Cotton’s essay would put them at risk with what some saw as his call to use the military to suppress the protests.

Bennet initially defended the essay as part of the op-ed section’s push to include diverse viewpoints. Later, though, he acknowledged that he had not read it before publication, leaving that task to junior editors. After the Times put out a statement saying the Cotton piece “did not meet our standards,” Bennet resigned.

Since early last year, Bennet has been employed by the Economist magazine as a “visiting” senior editor.

Toward the end of Tuesday’s testimony, Palin’s lawyer asked whether he had been reprimanded for the error. Bennet said he appeared before the Times’s board of directors to apologize. “I don’t know if that qualifies as a reprimand,” he said, “but it felt like one.”

Sarah Ellison is a staff writer based in New York for The Washington Post. Previously, she wrote for Vanity Fair, the Wall Street Journal and Newsweek, where she started as a news assistant in Paris.
Also see the New York Times story by Jeremy W. Peters headlined “Testifying in Palin libel trial, former Times editorial page editor takes responsibility for errors.” The opening grafs:

The editor who oversaw publication of the 2017 editorial at the heart of Sarah Palin’s libel suit against The New York Times said on Tuesday that he ultimately bore responsibility for its errors, capping his first day of testimony in the trial that will determine whether The Times is held liable for defamation in the United States for the first time in at least 50 years.

“This is my fault. And I’m not looking to shift blame to anyone else,” James Bennet, the former editorial page editor for The Times, said under questioning from one of Ms. Palin’s lawyers.

The former Alaska governor’s legal team tried for most of the day to convince the jury that Mr. Bennet and other Times journalists acted hastily and recklessly in publishing the editorial, which falsely linked Ms. Palin’s political rhetoric to a mass shooting. They are also trying to establish that The Times was slow in appending a correction, which did not name her or offer an apology to Ms. Palin.

They focused on emails between Mr. Bennet and other members of the Times opinion staff to establish a timeline between the publication of the editorial on the night of June 14, 2017, and the addition of the correction the next morning.

Mr. Bennet, who was contrite at times and unexpressive at others during two and a half hours of testimony, explained that he went home on the evening the paper appended a two-part correction to the editorial thinking that he had apologized to Ms. Palin. Now aware that she did not take the correction that way — her lawyers have repeatedly mentioned that it did not include her name — Mr. Bennet added, “I would hope that as a consequence of this process now I have.”

As he spoke, Ms. Palin sat just a few feet away in the federal courtroom in Lower Manhattan….

Speak Your Mind