The fourth day of the trial pitting Sarah Palin against the New York Times began with retired Times journalist Linda Cohn on the witness stand. At the time of the incident that provoked Palin’s libel suit, Cohn had worked at the Times for nearly three decades and was a member of the paper’s editorial board. This morning, for the better part of three hours, lawyers quizzed Cohn about the fateful day in June 2017 when the Times published an editorial that has since brought the company a whole lot of tsuris.
In Cohn’s telling, this piece was cursed from the get-go. Cohn testified that, a few hours before the editorial was published on the Times’ website, she walked over to the glass-doored office of James Bennet—her boss, and the man who is now co-defendant with the Times in this trial—to express that she “felt unsure about the piece” and didn’t know exactly “what we wanted it to be.” Based on Cohn’s testimony, and the testimony yesterday of Times researchers Phoebe Lett and Eileen Lepping, here’s my evolving guess as to how things got so muddled.
First, let’s talk about what kind of piece this was. It was an unsigned editorial. These appear in the Times opinion section, opposite the page where bylined opinion columns run. They are composed by a small group of Times opinion journalists known as the editorial board, and are meant to somehow represent the institutional voice of the Times. They are, in general, topical but milquetoast center-left takes.
I, personally, know no one who regularly reads these unsigned editorials. (I only pay attention to them when they make endorsements in citywide or statewide political races that I feel inadequately informed about.) Nonetheless, the Times editorial board cranks out three of these suckers a day. So you get this awkward situation where a team of incredibly smart, talented journalists is forever scrambling for some new milquetoast, center-left thing to say about the events of the moment.
On June 14, 2017, when a deranged gunman opened fire on Republican politicians playing baseball in Virginia and wounded Rep. Steve Scalise, the board decided there was probably something they could write about it. But what do you say about a wackadoo who did wackadoo things? The first thought, from editorial board member Robert Semple, was to make it about gun control: If there weren’t so many guns, these sorts of shootings wouldn’t happen so often. Perfectly adequate take. They probably should have just called it a day at that point.
But James Bennet, the head honcho of the editorial board who has since left the Times amid a different controversy, was dissatisfied. He was itching to say something about political rhetoric and how it had gotten way out of hand. He wanted the editorial to argue for lowering the temperature of political discourse—that if politicians would just tone it down and speak with civility, deranged men would not be incited to take up arms. Deftly executed, this might have been another decent milquetoast take. But that’s not how things went down.
Writer Elizabeth Williamson was tasked with combining the two pieces of milquetoast into one unsigned milquetoast sandwich. She did her best. The gun control part was pretty solid. But the part about out-of-control rhetoric was flimsy. In her draft, which has been admitted as evidence in the trial, Williamson blamed the “vile political climate” for having “nurtured” the rage of both that morning’s Virginia shooter and Jared Lee Loughner—the man who shot Rep. Gabby Giffords in the head in 2011.
Williamson turned in her draft at about 5 p.m. that day. Which is when Cohn went to Bennet and expressed her concerns that the piece wasn’t working. She asked Bennet to take a look. So what did Bennet do? Today, at 12:15 p.m., he took the witness stand to tell us.
Bennet wore the same uniform today that he has each day of the trial thus far: dark suit, button-down shirt, repp tie, frowny expression. The courtroom’s large overhead lights reflected off his bald pate. He spoke with a honeyed, baritone voice that conveyed intelligence and intensity.
He recalled Cohn coming to his office around 5 p.m. that day in June 2017 to talk about the Williamson draft. Cohn let Bennet know that she “did not think it was a great draft, which happens.” So he took a look and decided to sharpen the piece. Instead of blaming the Giffords shooting on a general political climate that could “nurture” rage, while waving vaguely toward Sarah Palin—as Williamson had done—Bennet wrote, referencing a graphic circulated by Palin’s political action committee, that “the link to political incitement was clear.”
Bennet submitted his revised piece around 8 p.m. He emailed WIlliamson to say he “really reworked this one” and that he was “sorry to do such a heavy edit.” Williamson replied that she didn’t mind, and that she could tell Bennet had been “keen to take this on.”
At 10:35 that night, shortly after the piece went up on the Times website, Bennet got an email from conservative Times columnist Ross Douthat. Douthat was baffled by the editorial’s assertions about Palin. He wrote to Bennet that there was “no evidence Jared Lee Loughner was incited by Sarah Palin or anyone else, given his extreme mental illness.” Bennet told Douthat he’d look into the matter in the morning.
But Bennet was too concerned to wait until morning. He texted Williamson, who was already asleep and didn’t respond. And then he started looking into the facts. At 5:08 a.m, Bennet emailed Williamson and the section’s fact-checker writing, “I don’t know what the truth is here.”
Palin’s lawyers have quoted that sentence multiple times during this trial. It seems they’ll keep quoting it as often as they can. They’ve got a fair point: Why was a smart, accomplished journalist like Bennet wondering what the truth of something was after he’d already printed it in the New York Times? Shouldn’t he have figured that out, like, before it went out to millions of readers?
The aftermath was miserable for Bennet. Inquiries about the error flooded in from reporters at the Washington Post, CNN, Fox, Axios, and other outlets. Bennet huddled with the Times’ comms team to figure out a response. But the damage, in ways Bennet didn’t yet realize, had already been done.
I don’t think Bennet was purposefully attempting to harm Sarah Palin. I think he was rushing to meet a deadline, and had something stuck in his head that wasn’t actually true. He blew it by not double-checking his facts before he made an incendiary accusation.
But at this trial, it appears that Palin’s lawyers aren’t exactly arguing that Bennet personally had it out for Palin when he made the error. It’s more like they’re suggesting there was a preset narrative that existed in Bennet’s head. He had a bee in his bonnet about Palin and political incitement, which led him to be willfully blind to reality. If Palin’s team can show this, it can potentially convince the jury—as it must to win a guilty verdict—that Bennet exhibited a “reckless disregard” for the truth.
It does seem like, if you’re going to blame someone for directly inciting gun violence that wounded a representative and killed a 9-year-old girl, you really ought to dot your i’s and cross your t’s. Bennet didn’t. Tomorrow, he’ll take the witness stand again, and will keep trying to clean up his mess.
Read more of Seth Stevenson’s coverage of the Times–Sarah Palin trial.