The Week That Was

Sarah Palin, James Bennet, and The Atlantic Wire

After following this case for nearly five years, I was entirely unaware until this past week that a news site I edited played any role in it

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When the trial of Sarah Palin v. The New York Times Company finally got underway this past Thursday, I was surprised to learn that one of the first matters of business was over whether articles from The Atlantic Wire, a news site spin-off of The Atlantic that I edited from 2011 to 2013, could be admitted as evidence. The core of Palin’s defamation case is a June 2017 editorial that ran in The New York Times, where James Bennet was opinion editor from 2016 to 2020, about a shooting attack on a Congressional baseball game. While editing the piece, Bennet added some lines referring to a 2011 mass shooting in Tucson, stating that “the link to political incitement was clear” and then cited a political ad Palin’s PAC had circulated. While that claim was hotly debated at the time, no such link is apparent from what has since been learned about the shooter’s motivations. After backlash from conservatives, The Times quickly took Bennet’s line out of the editorial and issued corrections for erroneously asserting a connection to Palin.

But before he joined The Times and at the time of the Tucson shooting, Bennet had been the editor-in-chief of The Atlantic and my boss. Palin’s legal team has cited articles published on the Wire as evidence that Bennet knew that the claim linking the shooting to Palin’s ad was false. Palin’s attorneys have also deposed Andrew Sullivan, whose opinion blog The Daily Dish was housed at The Atlantic from 2007 to 2011, to demonstrate, as one of their filings said, that Bennet “holds hostility toward Gov. Palin” and knew that “that using her name and attacks upon her inflames passions and drives viewership and Web clicks to media companies.” Judge Jed S. Rakoff has generally seemed sympathetic to The Times’s lawyers’ argument that these are irrelevant to the case at hand. However, as of Friday afternoon, it appeared to me, just listening in on the arguments, that they’re still sorting some details out. Still, after following this case for nearly five years, I was entirely unaware until this past week that The Atlantic Wire had played any role in it.

When it first launched in 2009, the Wire was an opinion aggregator, largely summarizing various columns written on news events and issues. My mission when I was hired as the site’s editor in February 2011 was to turn it into a news site. From what I can tell from the court documents, the first time the Wire was cited in the case was in a proposed amended complaint that Palin’s lawyers included in its appeal after Judge Rakoff first ruled to dismiss the case in August 2017. They argued that as editor of The Atlantic, Bennet “was responsible for the content of, reviewed, edited, and approved the publication of numerous articles confirming that there was no link between Mrs. Palin and Loughner’s shooting.”

When the Second Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the dismissal in 2019, its decision said “the most notable” article cited by Palin’s team was a pretty standard year-end piece headlined “Ten Days That Defined 2011” by Richard Lawson, now the chief critic at Vanity Fair, that ran on December 29, 2011. The appeals court panel noted that it included the lines, “the bad thing to come out of this already terrible story was a round of blame hurling, with people rushing to point at Sarah Palin’s infamous target map… In truth, Loughner is clinically insane and this was not really about politics at all.” This and other Wire stories, the appellate judges found, allowed “a permissible inference from the articles: that one who had risen to editor-in-chief at The Atlantic knew their content and thus that there was no connection between Palin and the Loughner shooting. That Palin’s complaint sufficiently alleges that Bennet’s opportunity to know the journalistic consensus that the connection was lacking gives rise to the inference that he actually did know.” Following that ruling, when Palin’s lawyers filed their first amended complaint for the current trial, it included the argument, “Certainly, Mr. Bennet read, reviewed, edited and remembered The Atlantic’s recap of the most important events of 2011, the most prominent of which is listed as the Loughner Shooting and refers to ‘pointing at Sarah Palin’s infamous target map’ as ‘blame hurling.’”

I can, as the person who was in charge of reading, reviewing, and editing the Wire content, say that it is not certain at all that Bennet was aware of what we published. In the burgeoning “social news” space at the time, “content velocity” was king. And my job was to publish as much as possible. There was no one else, no fact-checkers, no copy editors, no top editors, reading our posts before they went up. My memories of the time when I was the site’s only editor are a blur of copy. In October 2011, when Muammar Qaddafi was killed in the Libyan Civil War, I was visiting friends in Los Angeles. I hadn’t lined up anyone to cover for me while I was traveling, so I’d start editing around 6 a.m. and go nonstop until around 4 p.m., when I’d stagger out of the guest room for the first time. One afternoon, my somewhat bewildered friends asked me, “What exactly are you doing in there all day?” And, as I explained that I had edited and published about 50 posts since dawn, for the first time since I had started the job, I did the math that 50 posts over 10 hours came down to about 12 minutes of editing per post. By the time “Ten Days That Defined 2011” went up in December, I’d managed to hire someone who could help edit the site, and I was, that week, blissfully enjoying some proper time off on a vacation to Madrid.

If I was having trouble reading everything that went up on the Wire, so certainly was anyone else at The Atlantic, including Bennet. During testimony he gave in the case in 2017, one of Palin’s attorneys asked Bennet, “When you edited The Atlantic, do you recall covering the Tucson shooting?” He answered, “I didn’t cover it myself,” to which the lawyer admitted, “That’s a fair statement.” But the appeals court sided with Palin in its decision, ruling, “At a minimum, these allegations give rise to a plausible inference that Bennet was recklessly disregarding the truth when he published the editorial without reacquainting himself with the contrary articles published in The Atlantic six years earlier.”

Reading that sentence — which seems entirely implausible to me — resurfaced a lot of memories from that period. For one, it equates The Atlantic Wire with The Atlantic, which was decidedly not how we were seen internally or externally at the time. There were virtually no other editorial employees in New York City when I took the job, so I edited the site from a small ad sales office in Midtown. Visits to the D.C. headquarters in the Watergate complex, where the Wire writers were based, felt a bit like entering foreign territory. During my time working for Bennet, a frequent topic of discussion was trying to define the difference between The Atlantic and The Atlantic Wire. These eventually gave rise to a somewhat half-hearted effort to rebrand the site as simply The Wire shortly before I left in January 2014. When the site was shuttered later that year, the memo that Bennet and Bob Cohn (then the co-presidents of The Atlantic) referred to the Wire as an outside acquisition of sorts. “We will bring the staff of The Wire back into The Atlantic’s fold,” they wrote, previewing a process of “cultural integration” and an effort “to meld the two sites’ sensibilities.” Perhaps what’s given rise to subsequent confusion is the decision to put all of the Wire’s articles on the main site after it was shut down with a disclosure in small gray type, “This article is from the archive of our partner,” that would be easy for Sarah Palin, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, or anyone else to miss. But there’s little room for branding distinctions where search engine optimization is concerned.

The other thing that Palin seems to misapprehend is the role of editors-in-chief these days. It’s been a long time since that job description has amounted to reading, reviewing, and editing a publication. Most EICs these days, and especially during the great digital disruption that overturned most publications’ business plans, spend their working days in meetings plotting content strategies, audience development, revenue initiatives, and other management topics. Sitting down with copy, before or after publication, is now regarded in EIC circles as a guilty pleasure, an indulgence done for “fun” to remind themselves of why they got into the business in the first place. (One of the refreshingly enjoyable parts of launching The Fine Print has been closely editing everything we publish.) But most people don’t know this, and the gap between popular imagination and workaday reality crops up from time to time. One of the tangential controversies sparked by reader outrage over a New York Times page-one headline about a 2019 mass shooting in El Paso (which did have an explicitly political motivation) was the public revelation that the paper’s top editor Dean Baquet does not personally review the front page before it’s sent to press. “I don’t lay out the page. I don’t pick the front-page stories. I don’t think that’s the role of the executive editor anymore,” he told me at the time for a piece for the Columbia Journalism Review. It must be a bitter irony for Bennet to find the case against him to be premised on an idealized version of a job that essentially doesn’t exist anymore.

The other rush of memories that came flooding back when I learned about The Atlantic Wire’s cameo in this case, which many in journalism are concerned will ultimately result in the diminishment of First Amendment protections for the press, were the anxieties and fears I had as the sole editor of a high-volume news site of committing a grievous error each time I pressed the “Publish” button. While Bennet and other editors at The Atlantic were unlikely to read most of the Wire’s stories, they certainly would scrutinize the ones that caused blowback of one sort or another. So it’s with profound empathy that I read the frantic emails and texts between Bennet and other staff at The Times in the hours after their offending editorial went up. While I managed to get through my time at The Atlantic Wire without trashing the 150-plus-year legacy of The Atlantic, there but for the grace of God goes any editor on a tight deadline.

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