Twitter Storm Surprised NYT Editor Who Says He Was ‘Upset and Confused’

By Dave Paone
Dave Paone
Dave Paone
Dave Paone covers New York City.
February 9, 2022Updated: February 9, 2022

NEW YORK—James Bennet, The New York Times editor with the final word on the editorial at the heart of the newspaper’s defamation lawsuit by former Alaska governor Sarah Palin (R), testified in federal court on Feb. 9 that soon after it was posted on the newspaper’s website on June 14, 2017, he read criticisms of it by conservative writers on Twitter.

The tweets came as a surprise to him.

Bennet testified that he never intended the piece to blame Palin for a 2011 mass shooting that was referenced, or her political action committee (SarahPAC), in the editorial.

Bennet received an email from conservative New York Times columnist Ross Douthat at 10:35 that night.

Douthat expressed his concerns with the perception of the piece and included links to two separate tweets that were critical of it. One was from Jonathan Chait, a writer for New York magazine, and the other was from Chris Hayes, a primetime host on MSNBC.

At 11:38 pm, Bennet texted Elizabeth Williamson, the writer of the editorial’s first draft, “Because I was really worried,” he said.

“I was upset and confused, I have to say. I was so blindsided by this.”

The following day the editorial board posted their own tweets on the newspaper’s multiple Twitter accounts, correcting the editorial. They also revised passages in the online version of the editorial.

The court had previously been told the intended purpose of the piece was to connect violent political rhetoric—and the flow of guns—to shootings of politicians.

Bennet said that although he made a mistake connecting SarahPAC to mass shootings, it didn’t invalidate the argument presented in the editorial.

Under recross by defense attorney David Axelrod, Bennet said he never apologized to Palin because once she filed the lawsuit an apology would look like an attempt to get out of it.

Douthat took the stand in the afternoon. He testified that when he saw the Twitter storm it inspired him to read the editorial, which in turn got him to email Bennet.

There were two mass shootings referenced in the editorial–one involving Congresswoman Gabby Giffords (D-Ariz.) in 2011—and one involving GOP members of Congress earlier in the day of June 14.

Douthat felt the gunman in the GOP shooting had a political motivation (he was an admitted supporter of Bernie Sanders, a Democrat) and the gunman in the Giffords shooting did not, but the editorial suggested the opposite.

Palin took the stand for the last few minutes of the day and briefly testified about her family and her foray into politics until Judge Jed Rakoff called it a day.