The media circus that is the ongoing libel trial between former vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin and the New York Times could have far-reaching implications for the fate of the free press in this country, potentially threatening news outlets’ license to aggressively cover powerful and/or high-profile figures without fear of getting sued out of existence. (Yeah, I know.)
But the case, which involves a 2017 Times opinion piece that initially incorrectly connected Palin to the mass shooting of Arizona Rep. Gabby Giffords and several others in 2011, is also somewhat remarkable for what it reveals about the Times: that the journalistic process is not so much evil and calculating as it is messy, rushed, and embarrassing.
Critics would like to believe that there’s some great liberal conspiracy brewing in — to borrow the former Alaska governor’s phrase — the “lamestream media,” as Palin attempted to allege during her testimony on Thursday. It is not so. News media is not particularly trusted or liked by the general public right now; part of that may be because, in spite of all the highly realistic film and TV depictions of what it’s like to be a working journalist, the vast majority of ordinary people don’t know how any of it works. Assailed by political polarization, misinformation, the erosion of local news, IDK the internet?, and the continued opaqueness of the whole media operation, a lot of regular consumers probably have the news literacy of 12-year-olds who just got their first TikTok accounts. Maybe — and this is me speaking from a place of optimism, but also resignation — it might make the larger populace respect the media more if they learn just how stupid the inner workings of it are. The media is not infallible: not because of malice, but because the people who make it can be as sloppy and lazy as the next person. It’s something like the human condition.
The Times’s trouble began on June 14, 2017, the day that an anti-Trump gunman opened fire on Republican members of Congress during baseball practice, wounding House Majority Whip Steve Scalise among others. Following the shooting, the Times’s editorial board hurried to find an angle that could be written: gun control? increasingly incendiary political rhetoric? incitement of political violence? Elizabeth Williamson, a then-member of the editorial board, took on the “unenviable assignment,” as the Washington Post’s Erik Wemple puts it; she ended up filing a draft of what would become the piece titled “America’s Lethal Politics.”
Late in the afternoon, deadlines looming, editor Linda Cohn handed the draft to editorial page editor James Bennet, whose job it was to oversee all editorial and opinion writing for the Times opposite the newsroom. “You need to look at this,” she said, according to her testimony. Bennet took over the “troubled draft” and began writing a note suggesting how Williamson should rewrite it, before he decided to just edit the text himself in order to make the newspaper’s print deadline. “[A]t that point, I realized how late in the day it was getting and I was concerned about getting the piece done in time,” he testified in court on Wednesday.
In the course of heavy editing, Bennet inserted a falsity that attributed the 2011 Arizona shooting, in part, to a map that Palin’s political action committee had created showing — using crosshairs — which electoral districts the PAC was targeting for the previous election. “[T]he link to political incitement was clear,” Bennett wrote in the piece. Williamson, upon receiving the edited draft, waved away Bennet’s apologies for doing “such a heavy edit.” The editorial went up around 9 p.m. and almost immediately became the subject of major backlash. The next day, the Times issued corrections regarding the link “between political rhetoric” and the 2011 shooting, as well as the crosshairs map.
The current trial comes down to proving whether or not the Times acted with “actual malice,” a.k.a. “with knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not,” per the 1964 SCOTUS ruling on New York Times v. Sullivan. Palin is arguing that Bennet and the Times did, and in doing so, damaged her reputation and caused professional harm. (Disclosure: Palin’s lawyers represented Hulk Hogan in the former wrestler’s lawsuit against the previous iteration of this website.)
Palin will probably not win — Times v. Sullivan affords the free press ample protection, although two Supreme Court justices have opined that we should rethink that. But the Gray Lady will lose when it comes to eating shit. Bennet, a Yale graduate and former Atlantic editor-in-chief who at one point was more or less poised to become the next executive editor of the Times, has seen his career crater, and now finds himself publicly apologizing to Palin under oath. “This is my fault, right? I am the one who wrote those sentences,” said Bennett, who resigned from the Times in disgrace nearly two years ago after the opinion section published a disastrous op-ed from Sen. Tom Cotton calling for the use of military force against protesters in the wake of George Floyd’s killing at the hands of police.
The circumstances behind the Cotton essay’s publication were not especially flattering for Bennet — he admitted to staff that he had not actually read the story before it was published — and neither are the details surrounding the piece at the center of this trial. According to a 2017 deposition and present-day testimonies, Bennet apparently neglected to open a link that Williamson had originally included in the draft, which led to a story that mentioned there was no connection between Palin’s graphic and the Arizona shooting. Williamson, for her part, said that she had not reviewed the rewrites closely enough when she received them, and by the time Bennet emailed her about the brewing controversy around 11:30 p.m., she was already in bed.
All of this is bad, sure, but it’s hard to cast aspersions on rush jobs and carelessness when we’ve all been guilty of the same. I’ve rushed to get out a piece, I’ve misspelled a business’s name, I’ve had to issue corrections for careless errors. Years ago, before I blogged for a living, I wrote a joke post suggesting cooking methods for lettuce contaminated with E. coli, and somehow I was allowed to hit “publish” without anyone telling me that readers may misconstrue it as genuine medical advice. (You will not find this post online because it was almost immediately rescinded, which is probably for the best.) Again, none of these are because I’m trying to do a bad job, but just because I’m a human idiot. As much as some journalists like to roleplay as fearless, faultless arbiters of truth, most of them probably fall in the same boat.
Even at the Times, I’m tickled to learn, the process for publishing an opinion piece is almost exactly same as the process here at Gawker or at any number of digital outlets big and small: someone asks if anyone is writing about something that happened in the news, someone else says no, everyone starts scrambling to come up with potential angles, the writer has to pound a draft out in a manner of hours, editors try to speed-fix whatever jumble of a draft lands in front of them, and off into the world the post goes. No matter how prestigious the publication or how many resources and stopgaps they have, there is always a quick take to be written, the endless content churn to be fed, mistakes to be made and corrected. It deserves mockery, certainly. But in the sheer stupidity of this entire business, it would be nice if the media and the public could find something like an uneasy rapport. It’s just unfortunate that the Times’s messiness may come at the expense of the free press.