Ex-NYT editor James Bennet testifies on Palin editorial: 'This is my fault' Former New York Times editorial page editor James Bennet testified Tuesday he was to blame for an incorrect passage about former Gov. Sarah Palin in a 2017 editorial on heated political rhetoric.

Former 'New York Times' editor testifies on Sarah Palin editorial: 'This is my fault'

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This is my fault. That's what the former top opinion editor at The New York Times said today on the witness stand. He was testifying in a defamation case brought by Sarah Palin against the newspaper. The former governor of Alaska is suing the Times over an editorial that wrongly linked one of her political action committee's ads to a mass shooting.

NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik joins us now. Hi, David.


FLORIDO: First, lay out the facts of the case for us. What's it about?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, a case like this actually showing up in court is dramatic, and it's rare. It centers on an editorial written in June 2017, and it directly linked this ad from Sarah Palin's political action committee to this mass shooting that occurred in Tucson, Ariz., that grievously wounded then-Congresswoman Gabby Giffords and killed six other people.

The phrasing in the editorial that was included was, the link to political rhetoric is clear. That editorial was written six years after the Tucson shooting upon the occasion of the shooting of a Republican Louisiana congressman, Steve Scalise. The New York Times ended up having to correct it twice the next day.

FLORIDO: So it sounds like the New York Times editor admitted he blew it. What else did we learn?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, so James Bennet was then the editorial page editor. He's back in court. He's also a defendant here. He said - as you said, he said, this is my fault. And he said, look; I'm not shifting blame to anyone else. He acknowledged that he was rushing to get it in print.

A bunch of other journalists from the Times' editorial section acknowledged that on the stand as well in the past few days. They were trying to get it out the same day that the Scalise shooting happened. And he played kind of a heavy hand. He kind of went in and redrafted the editorial because he wanted to meet that deadline but also because he wanted to make a sweeping argument about the need for gun control and also the question of incendiary political rhetoric.

The key is this - was this an honest mistake, as the Times has represented, or something called actual malice, which was the standard set in a Supreme Court ruling in a case involving the Times itself back in 1964 that's intended to give journalists and the public running room in criticizing public figures?

FLORIDO: Well, what are the stakes here? The trial is still going on. But if the Times loses and Palin wins, what could the consequences be for the media writ large?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, so Palin has a pretty high bar to exceed here to win. It's, you know - as I said, you know, in that case, the idea is that there be running room for the press, and that's, you know, something expanding on First Amendment free speech rights. And she also has yet to prove that she's suffered any real harms from this. She hasn't proved any real loss of revenue. She hasn't shown what this has done, and the Times did correct it, as I said, the next day.

Should she win, however, this would be an - essentially a constriction of that protection. And a lot of media lawyers are looking at this and saying, gosh, this will make it tougher for mainstream news outlets to give tough scrutiny to public figures like Sarah Palin.

FLORIDO: So what happens next?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, we're expecting James Bennet to come back into the witness stand. It's not clear that Palin's lawyers are done with him. They sort of jabbed and sparred with him like a heavyweight in a boxing match today. They'll be back. The Times' attorneys will get a chance to go at him again.

And then, of course, there is Governor Palin herself - should be up a bit later in this trial. And she'll be able to offer the emotional import of what it was like to see yourself linked to - or action committee linked to this mass shooting in this editorial that contained these mistakes.

FLORIDO: That's NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik. Thanks, David.


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