New York Times editor testifies in Sarah Palin’s defamation lawsuit

By Brendan Pierson

(Reuters) – The editor of the New York Times editorial board on Wednesday took the witness stand in a lawsuit filed by former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, who claims that a June editorial in the paper defamed her by linking her to a 2011 mass shooting.

James Bennet testified at a hearing before U.S. District Judge Jed Rakoff in a Manhattan federal court that he meant to link Palin to an “overall climate” of incitement to political violence, but not to say she caused the shooting.

Bennett was called to testify as Rakoff considers whether to dismiss the case or allow it to go to trial. To proceed, Palin must show she has a plausible claim that the Times acted with “actual malice.”

Palin, the former Alaska governor who was Republican presidential candidate John McCain’s running mate in an unsuccessful 2008 campaign, is seeking in excess of $75,000 for compensatory, special and punitive damages.

The lawsuit concerns a June 14 editorial about the mass shooting at a Virginia baseball field that injured four people, including Republican Representative Steve Scalise.

The editorial sought to link the shooting to a trend political violence, recalling a shooting in Arizona in 2011, by Jared Lee Loughner, that targeted U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords and killed six people.

Before the shooting, the editorial said, Sarah Palin’s political action committee circulated a map that “put Ms. Giffords and 19 other Democrats under stylized crosshairs.”

The newspaper subsequently issued a series of corrections, saying no link had been established between political rhetoric and Loughner’s actions. It also corrected its description of the map, saying it depicted electoral districts, not Giffords and individual Democratic lawmakers, beneath cross hairs.

“What I wasn’t trying to say was that there was a direct causal link between this map and the shooting,” Bennet said. “It didn’t enter my reasoning at the time that Jared Loughner was acting because of this map.”

Bennet, who was previously the editor in chief of the Atlantic Monthly, testified that he did not look at the map or extensively review the Times’ own news coverage of the 2011 shooting while he was editing the article.

Rakoff did not rule on the Times’ motion to dismiss, and asked lawyers representing Palin and the newspaper to file briefs about the impact of Bennet’s testimony.

(This story corrects paragraph 9 attribution to Bennet instead of Loughner)

(Reporting By Brendan Pierson in New York; Editing by Marguerita Choy)