Former New York Times editor put on defensive at Sarah Palin defamation trial

NEW YORK, Feb 8 (Reuters) - A former New York Times editorial page editor was put on the defensive on Tuesday in Sarah Palin's defamation trial against the newspaper over a 2017 editorial that incorrectly linked the former Republican vice presidential candidate and Alaska governor to an earlier mass shooting in Arizona.

James Bennet, the former editor, testified in the trial's fourth day that he relied upon research from colleagues before adding language, under deadline pressure, that suggested Palin's political action committee might have incited the 2011 Arizona shooting.

Six people died and former U.S. Representative Gabby Giffords was seriously wounded in that shooting.

The June 14, 2017, editorial about gun control and the decline of political discourse followed a shooting at a Virginia baseball practice in which Steve Scalise, a member of the House of Representatives' Republican leadership, was wounded.

"I was really concerned ... that something like this didn't seem like such a big deal any more," Bennet told Palin's lawyer Shane Vogt. "It seemed like a huge deal that several Republican congressmen had been shot, and I did want to get our readers' attention to that."

The trial is a test of legal protections that have long safeguarded U.S. media from defamation claims by public figures.

Lawyers for Palin have accused the Times of trying to falsely smear her, and questioned other Times journalists about the newspaper's writing and editing procedures.

Palin, 57, has signaled that if she lost she would use an appeal to challenge the landmark 1964 U.S. Supreme Court decision in a case called New York Times v Sullivan.

She is trying to prove that Bennet and the Times acted with "actual malice," a high standard adopted in the Sullivan decision, meaning they knew the editorial was false or had reckless disregard for the truth.

Bennet is the highest-level Times journalist expected to testify.

The editorial originally drafted by board member Elizabeth Williamson referenced Palin's political action committee having circulated a map before the Giffords shooting that put the congresswoman and 19 other Democrats under cross hairs.

Bennet added language that "the link to political incitement was clear" and that there was no sign of incitement in the Scalise shooting as direct as in the Giffords shooting.

In a subsequent correction, the Times said there was no such link.


Bennet testified that he initially intended to make notes for Williamson to review, but under deadline pressure made changes and asked her to "please take a look" at them.

"I was concerned about getting the piece done on time, ... and I just began editing the piece myself," he said. "I'm not looking to shift the blame."

Vogt tried to show that shortly after the editorial's late evening publication, Bennet learned from Times colleague Ross Douthat and Twitter posts that the wording might be problematic, but waited until the next morning to ask staff to look into it.

Bennet said the Times had a policy against taking down published pieces, and noted that the editorial was already running in the print edition.

He said he later apologized to the newspaper's board.

"I wasn't asked to do that, there just happened to be a meeting," he said. "I don't know if that qualifies as a reprimand but it felt like one."

Bennet also said the Times had a policy against apologizing for corrections, which are "extremely painful" for journalists, and that it would be "meaningless" to apologize for every error.

Asked if he had apologized to Palin, Bennet said: "I hope that as a consequence of this process, now I have."

Linda Cohn, a retired Times editor, testified earlier on Tuesday that she never heard Bennet discussing Palin negatively, and that he initially appeared surprised to learn people were upset with the editorial's wording.

"There was a general sense of 'oh no,'" she said.

Palin was John McCain's running mate in the 2008 U.S. presidential election, and Alaska's governor from 2006 to 2009.

Bennet was expected to resume testimony on Wednesday. He has yet to be questioned by his own lawyers. Palin is also expected to testify at the trial.

Reporting by Jody Godoy and Jonathan Stempel in New York; Editing by Will Dunham, Noeleen Walder and Howard Goller

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Jody Godoy reports on banking and securities law. Reach her at