NYT editors ignored fact checkers before publishing editorial linking Palin to shooting

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NYT editors ignored fact checkers before publishing editorial linking Palin to shooting

Emails revealed during Sarah Palin’s defamation trial against the New York Times Friday showed the paper’s editors ignored fact checkers before publishing an editorial that linked the former Alaskan Governor to a mass shooting.

The emails were entered as evidence on the second day of the libel trial against the paper after a June 2017 editorial linked Palin’s political action committee to a mass shooting in Arizona that wounded former Arizona Rep. Gabby Giffords and killed six people in 2011.

Jesse Wegman, a member of the paper’s editorial board, wrote in an email that it appeared the Times tried to “sneak” in the link between Palin’s PAC and the shooting in the editorial.

The editorial, titled “America’s Lethal Politics,” suggested a map distributed by Palin’s PAC that featured stylized crosshairs over congressional districts, including Gifford’s, contributed to the shooting. The editorial was corrected hours after it was published.

The evening the opinion piece was published, James Bennet – the former editor of the editorial pages –  emailed editorial section journalist Elizabeth Williamson, who wrote the first draft of the piece, saying that he “really reworked this one,” documents revealed in court Friday showed, the Daily Mail reported

Bennet is named as the sole defendant in the lawsuit.

The New York Times building in the west side of Midtown Manhattan.
The New York Times had linked Palin to a 2017 mass shooting in Arizona.
Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Later that same night Wegman emailed Williamson telling her the article was “superb” and “finely tuned.”

“My anger about US gun culture is so intense that I can’t be calm,” he wrote to the Williamson.

She replied that the article was “mostly a James (Bennet) production.”

Later that night, Williamson received an email from a Times fact checker, who indicated that the paper had previously written about Palin’s PAC’s map in 2010, “months before” the mass shooting in Tucson. The fact checker’s note was apparently ignored.

Just before 11 p.m. after the editorial had been published Wegman emailed Williamson again, writing “The gun rights brigade is having a seizure over the Giffords – Loughner – Palin link.”

Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin reacts to a reporter's question as she leaves Federal court.
Former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin reacts to a reporter’s question as she leaves Federal court.
AP / John Minchillo

“These guys always rage whenever we write about guns which is partly why I dread doing these pieces,” Wegman said.

The exchanges changed tone the following morning when the editors realized they may have made a mistake. In an email to Wegman, Williamson said that Bennett “would like to check what the truth is here.”

Bennet asked Williamson just after 5 a.m. to start drafting a correction, Politico reported

Bennett texted Williamson he felt “lousy’”and that he had “just moved too fast” in publishing the piece. According to court documents, Bennet added the lines about political incitement over which Palin later sued.

Sarah Palin arrives at the Daniel Patrick Moynihan Courthouse carrying a NY Rangers mask on February 4, 2022 in New York.
The trial was originally delayed due to Palin testing positive for COVID-19.
Alec Tabak

“We may have relied too heavily on our earlier editorials and other early coverage of the attack,” Bennet said in an email.

That afternoon, Wegman said he “made the case that talking about Palin and Giffords in the same graf (paragraph) looked like we were still trying to sneak the link in,” in an email to Williamson. He said Bennet told him to leave the connection there in order for the next paragraph to make sense.

Williamson was grilled on the stand for hours in Manhattan federal court on Friday after she was called by Palin’s attorneys. She was the only witness who testified Friday.

Williamson said that the intent of the editorial was not to make a connection between the map and the Tucson shooting, but to show how heated rhetoric from both Democrats and Republicans can have real-life consequences.

“It was clear people misunderstood the intent of the editorial,” she said while she was questioned, Politico reported.

Williamson said the main issue was not the map, but Bennet’s insertion of the word “incitement” in his edited version of the article.

“It was not the map,” she said. “That word….was problematic to our readers.”

She admitted that she did not take time to read Bennet’s edited version of her original draft, or the final version that was published.

Palin listens as The New York Times' lawyer David Axelrod questions witness Elizabeth Williamson during the defamation lawsuit.
Palin listens as The New York Times’ lawyer David Axelrod questions witness Elizabeth Williamson during the defamation lawsuit.
REUTERS / Jane Rosenberg

“I did not read it thoroughly. In retrospect, I wish I had,” she said.

Williamson added that Bennet was “crestfallen that this had happened.”

New York Times’ attorney David Axelrod argued on Thursday that Palin was not harmed by the editorial and that she faced no monetary repercussions and has continued her career as a GOP stalwart and reality TV personality.

Palin must prove the newspaper and Bennet acted with “actual malice” or “reckless disregard” for the truth when they published the editorial in order to win.

The trial began on Thursday after it was postponed for two weeks after Palin tested positive for COVID-19.

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