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Opinion Sarah Palin defamation suit: ‘Political incitement’ language was added to New York Times draft

Former Alaska governor Sarah Palin. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

A draft of the New York Times editorial that triggered a lawsuit from Sarah Palin didn’t include language blaming her political action committee for “political incitement,” according to a document entered into evidence in the case. The controversial passage in the June 14 editorial, titled “America’s Lethal Politics,” appears to have been added during the editing process. It linked Palin’s political action committee to the murderous Tucson rampage of Jared Lee Loughner in 2011:

The editorial was pegged to another shooting rampage in which James Hodgkinson opened fire on a group of Congress members and staff at an Alexandria baseball field on June 14. An immediate social-media backlash battered the editorial on the grounds that no link between Palin’s PAC and Loughner’s actions had ever been established. As for the map circulated by the PAC: It put congressional districts under crosshairs, not politicians themselves.

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The New York Times issued corrections and an apology to readers, though not directly to Palin. She sued in a New York federal court not even two weeks after the whole affair, alleging that the newspaper “knew and had published pieces acknowledging that there was no connection between Mrs. Palin and Loughner’s 2011 shooting.”

In an appearance last week before Judge Jed S. Rakoff, New York Times Editorial Page Editor James Bennet testified that he hadn’t, in fact, reviewed key articles related to the Palin-Loughner connection before he edited a draft editorial written by Elizabeth Williamson, a Washington-based editorial board member. “I had created an ambiguity that people were reading to say something I didn’t mean to say,” Bennet said, according to the New York Post. “I did not intend to imply that it was a causal link to this crime.”

Whatever Bennet intended to do, there’s now more evidence on the record to document what he appears to have done. Have a look at the key lines in Williamson’s piece:

The edited version of the story went much, much further:

Was this attack evidence of how vicious American politics has become? Probably. In 2011, when Jared Lee Loughner opened fire in a supermarket parking lot, grievously wounding Representative Gabby Giffords and killing six people, including a 9-year-old girl, the link to political incitement was clear. Before the shooting, Sarah Palin’s political action committee circulated a map of targeted electoral districts that put Ms. Giffords and 19 other Democrats under stylized cross hairs.

So: Williamson goofed on the crosshairs matter but otherwise produced a careful bit of writing that squared with the New York Times’s editorial position on gun control. Through the editing process, it acquired a naked allegation about Palin’s PAC, one that had been debunked years back.

Rakoff is expected to rule by month’s end on the newspaper’s motion to dismiss Palin’s suit.