NEW YORK—Two top editors from The New York Times testified in its libel trial brought on by former Alaska governor Sarah Palin (R) in federal court on Feb. 8.
Linda Cohn, the junior of the two, said she had voiced her concerns about the editorial at the heart of the lawsuit after reading a draft of it late in the afternoon on June 14, 2017.
“I was concerned about the graph–paragraph–on gun control,” she said under direct examination by one of Palin’s lawyer, Kenneth Turkel.
Cohn took her concern to James Bennet, who was the editor with the final word on the piece. In his office she said to him, “You need to look at this,” she recalled.
She also testified she was “a little confused” about “what we wanted out of this piece.” Cohn wasn’t sure if the editorial was about political rhetoric, gun control, or both, and wanted Bennet “to weigh in.”
“He said he would take a look at it.”
The first draft of the editorial was written by Elizabeth Williamson, who’s already testified.
Any editors who made revisions made them in Scoop, a computer program designed for newspapers and reporters. A component of the program is editors can write notes in it for themselves or for anyone else to see.
Cohn made two notes in the draft. One was, “Do we know of any political figures on the left who have incited violence?”
According to Palin the published editorial claims she, a Republican, incited political violence but makes no mention of Democrats doing so, even though there were many examples current at the time.
One of those examples was a meme that comedian Kathy Griffin circulated with her holding the severed head of President Donald Trump. It was out just two weeks before the shooting at a Republican Congressional baseball practice, which prompted the editorial.
Cohn said she had thought of the meme, but only wanted to include elected officials. She also testified that examples of incitement were “everything from the Tea Party on.”
The editorial included a map Palin’s political action committee (SarahPAC) had distributed with crosshairs superimposed over districts of Democrats.
Cohn did not question including this in the paragraph about the gunman in a mass shooting that involved Congresswoman Gabby Giffords (D-Ariz.) in 2011.
He wasn’t “taking orders from the map,” she said.
The only issue she took with the map was to say whether it was published “weeks” or “months” before the attack.
Defense attorney David Axelrod asked Cohn if she considered adding Palin’s name to the correction issued the next day.
“Yes, we talked about it,” she said, but added the newspaper has a policy about not repeating the mistake in a correction.
She also said she didn’t want to put Palin’s name “in the same proximity of this horrible shooting.”
Axelrod backtracked a little and asked her about other pieces of the editorial. Ultimately, Cohn saw no reason not to publish it.
After the backlash the editorial was revised, but still referred to Palin.
“I think it’s just an example of the kind of rhetoric at the time,” she said.
Bennet, the senior editor of the two, took the stand next.
He corroborated Cohn’s testimony that she came to his office with concerns about the editorial and testified he rewrote it himself.
On the evening it was posted Bennet started to feel the heat. He said to the court, “This is my fault, right? I wrote these sentences and I’m not looking to shift the blame to anyone else.”
At 5:08 the morning after the editorial was posted he wrote on Twitter, “I’m very sorry for my own failure on this yesterday,” and wrote about a possible correction.
“I had not gotten much sleep and that morning is a bit of a blur to me,” Bennet said.
He testified that about six months later he appeared before the newspaper’s board to take responsibility and to apologize.
“Did you ever apologize to Gov. Palin?” asked Palin’s other attorney Shane Vogt.
“My hope is that as a consequence of this process that I have,” he answered.
As he has since the trial began, Judge Jed Rakoff peppered the day with jokes.
He started with telling both sets of attorneys he’s tempted to ditch the trial and have everyone hangout in the park together because “there’s a touch of spring in the air.”
When the jurors were seated, he said to them, “I hope you appreciate the fact that council and I arranged a beautiful day for you today.”
Rakoff ended the day little early as he had a class to teach at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.