James Bennet’s Day in Court Arrives
Since resigning as New York Times opinion editor in 2020, the distinguished editor’s most prominent moments have been as a defendant in Sarah Palin’s defamation lawsuit
James Bennet seemed parched, at least notionally. The former opinion editor of The New York Times kept a plastic water bottle close by and often in hand on Tuesday through much of his first day of testimony in the trial of Sarah Palin’s defamation suit against him and The Times, though he seemed to drink rarely. Bennet has emerged as the central figure in the case as he was responsible for introducing language in an editorial, responding to a 2017 mass shooting, which repeated a false claim that an advertisement by Palin’s political action committee bore blame for a previous mass shooting. When called to the stand, Bennet hastily got up before spinning around, holding up an epiphanic finger, and grabbing his plastic water bottle. He took off his black N95 mask in the witness box, revealing a clean-shaven face nearly as shiny as his dome. His eyebrows seemed a little less pronounced in person than in recent photographs. While the previous witness was on the stand, Palin passed an occasional note to her lawyer, but she stared intently at the witness box as Bennet spoke. She didn’t have to strain to hear what he was saying. Shortly after Bennet began his testimony, a court reporter asked him to lower his deep, rumbling voice. “Oh, I’m too loud?” he said. “I’m really sorry.”
Palin’s lawyer Shane Vogt had promised the jury in his opening statement, “What you’re going to learn about Mr. Bennet is that he is an Ivy League-educated career journalist.” And his initial examination of Bennet leaned heavily into the Ivy League-educated aspect. When asked where he’d gone to college, Bennet confirmed he’d attended Yale. Judge Jed S. Rakoff broke in a bit later to clarify the trial transcript. “When the court reporters, who are fantastic, are taking down testimony, they sometimes just put down the sound and then correct it later to what was the actual word,” he said. “They have you saying, ‘I went to Jail University.’ I take it that was not totally your view of Yale?” Bennet erupted in elongated laughter. “No,” he managed to get out before continuing laughing. “Sorry,” he said eventually, collecting himself. Vogt pressed on. “Did you graduate fairly high in your class?” he asked. “You know, you’ve asked me that question before,” Bennet noted. “They didn’t keep track that way, I don’t think.” Vogt wasn’t willing to drop the point. “Did you receive any academic awards?” he asked. “I did,” Bennet admitted.
Next, they dove into the editor’s decorated career. Vogt asked where Bennet interned while in college. Bennet took an incredibly long time to remember. “I interned for The Wilson Quarterly, I think,” he said before breaking off to recollect silently. “And I, at one point, also interned in the office of Senator Tom Eagleton,” he added after a long pause. After graduating, Bennet interned at The New Republic. “Roughly 33 years ago,” Vogt noted. Bennet laughed again. Was this nervous laughter? “Wow,” he said. They charted his subsequent ascent through the ranks at The Times, including his stint as Jerusalem bureau chief and his departure to become editor-in-chief of The Atlantic in 2006. Vogt didn’t follow his career through to his resignation as opinion editor in 2020, following the publication of an op-ed by Senator Tom Cotton calling for the use of military force against protesters coming out to oppose police brutality. That was beyond the scope of this trial. Though he’s recently been working as a senior editor at The Economist, Bennet’s most public role since leaving The Times has been as a defendant in Palin’s suit that has dragged into its fifth year. It’s an unusual, undoubtedly aggravating, turn for someone who was once talked about as the leading contender to be the next executive editor of The New York Times. Both lawyers and opinion editors make a living picking apart arguments and inventing rhetoric. Bennet seemed at home in the courtroom.
The grilling let up at 12:55 p.m. when the court broke for lunch. Bennet reappeared in the courtroom around 1:50 p.m., ten minutes before the proceedings were supposed to resume. He started pacing back and forth, first around his lawyers’ table and then around the room. One of his hands rested in a pocket, the other clutched a water bottle. He stopped to listen to a conversation, nodding and laughing. “I should go to serious plays,” said one elderly gentleman he seemed to be listening to just before Bennet wandered off again. At 2 p.m., the judge and jury were still not back in the courtroom, so Bennet stood behind his lawyers’ table, continuing to wait, arms crossed behind his back, still clutching the water bottle. His head was tilted down, and his eyes seemed fixed on a point somewhere below him. Bennet had now spent nearly twenty minutes pacing. Most of that time, he looked down, but in one moment, he looked up at the ceiling as if struck by something he hadn’t thought of before.
Once his testimony resumed, some of the matters Vogt asked him seemed peripheral to the case, at best. At one point, Vogt cited a February 2017 conversation Bennet had been part of about staff anxieties about the shrinking of the space The New York Times occupies within its building. Apparently, it was relevant because a tweet by Palin about the restacking was mentioned. Bennet delivered a fascinating insight into Times office politics, which seemed beside the point. “The company had decided to compress the staff into a smaller number of floors, and rumors were running around that this was going to happen, and there was concern about it. There was particular concern in opinion because the tradition in opinion going back to time immemorial was that all the columnists and all the editorial board members had their own offices. And one consequence of this move was going to be that they were all going to lose their offices. So there was particular anxiety about that,” he said. “I spent a lot of time explaining to people that they were going to lose their offices.”
Bennet demonstrated he had mastered the trial materials on several occasions, repeatedly citing the testimony of editor Linda Cohn and editorial board member Elizabeth Williamson when his memory failed him. “If Linda says I worked on it with her, then I worked on it with her,” he said in answer to a question about who wrote the correction appended to the editorial. “I had not gotten much sleep, that morning is a blur.” His responses to some questions indicated that he was trying to pick out the argument his interrogator was trying to build. “Did I type it into the search engine myself?” he asked, trying to clarify a question about his research after the publication of the editorial. “What answer are you after?” And, after close examination of an exhibit, he altered his testimony from what he’d said in a deposition, noting how much he’d learned in the aftermath of the editorial’s publication. “It’s so hard, Mr. Vogt, for me to tell now what I knew at the time, what I’ve learned since, and I’m sorry, I just kind of mix that stuff up,” he said. “So, tell me again, what you’re asking for?”
There were, however, moments when the differences between an editorial board meeting and court proceedings became apparent. While Vogt displayed an exhibit showing the editorial on The Times home page, Bennet let slip a brief homily. “I can’t help observing in passing that it’s just remarkable that by the time the editorial was up, the story [of the shooting] had already disappeared from the top of the homepage,” he said. “It sort of makes that point about people getting used to this kind of thing.” Vogt cautioned him not to get ahead of the exhibits presented to the court. “Let me introduce it first before you talk about it,” he said. “You don’t want to get yelled at for doing that.” Bennet responded, “I don’t want to get yelled at at all.”
Perhaps the phrase Bennet used most often in his first day of testimony was “I’m sorry.” He continually said “I’m sorry” for not understanding Vogt’s questions, or at least not understanding perfectly. When Vogt asked, “Did you ever apologize to Governor Palin?” Bennet said, “My hope is that, as a consequence of this process, now I have.” He’s had plenty of time to feel sorry since the publication of the editorial in 2017 and his resignation from The Times in 2020.
As Judge Rakoff walked out of court, promptly at 3:30 p.m., to make it uptown to Columbia Law School, where he teaches a class on Tuesdays, Bennet cracked his water bottle. As observers filed out of the courtroom, he stayed in the witness box, sipping the water. Then he stepped out of the witness box, put his mask back on, retrieved his coat, and headed for the exit.