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James Bennet to Continue Testifying in Sarah Palin Libel Trial

Lawyers for The New York Times attempted on Wednesday to establish that members of its staff acted diligently and responsibly after learning that an editorial published in 2017 incorrectly linked a mass shooting in Arizona to the political rhetoric of Sarah Palin, who is suing the news organization for defamation.

The jury weighing Ms. Palin’s suit against The Times in federal court in Lower Manhattan also heard briefly on Wednesday from Ms. Palin herself. But with late afternoon approaching, Judge Jed S. Rakoff adjourned for the day after Ms. Palin’s lawyer had questioned her for roughly 15 minutes, touching only on biographical points about her political career and life in Alaska.

Ms. Palin, who has receded from the public eye in recent years despite once being one of the Republican Party’s most dynamic but polarizing stars, explained that she was now spending most of her time in her hometown, Wasilla, Alaska, where she was “holding down the fort” as a single mother raising a child with special needs.

She will resume her testimony on Thursday morning.

The bulk of the day’s proceedings were consumed by the second and final day of testimony from James Bennet, the former editor of the opinion section of The Times, who also is named as a defendant in Ms. Palin’s suit.

Mr. Bennet said under questioning from a lawyer representing The Times that it was never his intention to blame Ms. Palin for the 2011 mass shooting outside Tucson, Ariz., that wounded Gabrielle Giffords, then a Democratic member of Congress, and left six others dead.

Mr. Bennet said his use of the phrase “the link to political incitement was clear” — which he inserted into the editorial as he edited it — was meant as a critique of the overheated political rhetoric of that moment.

Mr. Bennet testified that once he saw a flood of social media criticism, he thought that “the editorial was being read in a way we did not intend.”

The editorial, which lamented the nation’s increasingly heated political discourse, was written after the shooting at a congressional baseball team practice in June 2017 that left Representative Steve Scalise, Republican of Louisiana, gravely wounded. As originally published with the “incitement” language, the editorial mistakenly drew a link between the 2011 shooting and a map of the United States circulated by Ms. Palin’s political action committee that showed 20 House districts held by Democrats at the time with digitized cross-hairs over them.

No evidence was ever found that showed the Arizona gunman, Jared Lee Loughner, had any political motives. The editorial was published the night of June 14, 2017, and The Times corrected it the next morning.

Lawyers for Ms. Palin are arguing that The Times acted recklessly in writing and publishing the editorial — a claim they must prove to meet the legal bar the law sets for defamation cases — and then was slow to correct it. Mr. Bennet attempted to refute that, testifying on Wednesday that the online backlash to the article surprised him because he was so certain he had not made a mistake. And the lawyer representing The Times, David Axelrod, highlighted an email from Mr. Bennet sent at 5:08 the morning after publication in which he wrote, “I would like to correct this as quickly as possible.”

“I was upset and confused, I have to say, because I was just so blindsided by this,” Mr. Bennet said Wednesday.

Part of what accounted for his confusion, he said, was the fact that he thought an editorial writer, a fact checker and two other editors had also looked over the piece. “And nobody had raised this issue,” he said.

Though the incident in question occurred almost five years ago, Mr. Bennet said he had thought about it “pretty much every day since.”

Ms. Palin’s lawyers also called to the stand Ross Douthat, a Times columnist who wrote to Mr. Bennet around 11 on the night the editorial was published expressing his “bafflement” at the reference to Ms. Palin. Mr. Douthat testified that while he knew there had been no connection established between the Tucson shooting and Ms. Palin’s political rhetoric, he understood that others at the time believed there was.

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