Politico’s John Harris steps on several rakes defending James Bennet

One good thing about being a highly-placed media progressive is that when you get yourself in trouble you have a group of friends who are also highly-placed media progressives willing to come to your rescue. That’s what happened today with John Harris writing a piece for Politico defending his pal James Bennet as the only honest person in the Palin libel trial. Not surprisingly, the entire thing is an embarrassment.

In an age when every arena of politics and media is infused with remorseless combat, James Bennet has a rare distinction: The former New York Times editorial page editor has been circled by ideological packs on left and right with equal ferocity.

The cliche that if you are making both sides mad you must be doing something right has never rung more hollow. In fact, diverse attackers have succeeded in extracting chunks of flesh from one of the most conscientious journalists of his generation.

Calling Bennet conscientious when he’s literally on trial for claiming Palin’s map incited mass murder, something it definitely did not do, is an abuse of language. If Bennet was conscientious he would have taken two minutes to Google the issue before blaring his ignorance to the entire world. He would have clicked on the link in the first draft of the editorial which would have informed him there was no such connection. Winging it because you’re running out of time doesn’t make you conscientious.

After this absurd start, the piece continues downhill, pointing to Bennet as the only honest person in the room.

It is a drama in which he may be the only actor whose presence is on the level. The other parties are freighted with multiple layers of artifice and hypocrisy.

Palin’s motives are not genuinely about seeking redress for a factual error that was quickly corrected. She knows the whole episode has enhanced, not damaged, her reputation with the partisans on whom her political and financial fortunes depend.

There are two arguments here and both of them are rubbish. First, as for Bennet being “on the level” I’d encourage anyone who believes that to read his deposition. His answer to a question about what he meant by “political incitement” was so meandering and disconnected from the case that the judge stepped in to ask him to speak specifically to what he wrote:

THE COURT: Well, maybe I am asking a more narrow question. I am asking a question about grammar and sentence structure, which presumably you have some expertise in. The sentence in its entirety reads: “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.” Doesn’t that mean as a matter of ordinary English grammar and usage that that sentence is saying that the shooting in 2011 was clearly linked to political incitement?

THE WITNESS: That is not what I intended it to mean.

And a bit later in the exchange with the judge, Bennet seemed unable to explain his own thinking. Read this aloud to yourself if you want a good laugh:

I wasn’t trying to say that any particular piece of political incitement causes a maniac like Jared Lee Loughner to take up arms and shoot at elected representatives. I don’t — I just — there isn’t a part of it — to my mind, it is a distinction with a very big difference there between — I simply don’t think — I think that politicians who say things that are incendiary should be criticized for saying things that are incendiary hopefully before something terrible happens, certainly after something terrible happens. But I don’t think — I think that it’s well sort of saying that in saying something terrible, they’re causing a violent action to take place.

All of that to say, under questioning Bennet did not sound like someone “on the level,” he sounded like someone trying to avoid admitting he showed reckless disregard for the truth.

Second, as for the claim that this is a reputation enhancer for Palin, Harris is far from the first journalist to argue that Palin is less a human being than a crafty partisan who benefits from every vile thing said about her. Frankly, this is a media game that goes back two decades now. And even in 2022, when Palin’s most recent moment in the spotlight was on a silly singing show, Harris is trying to argue that being linked to a mass murder was good for her career. He’s right on the edge of saying Palin owes Bennet her thanks for this career assist.

Blaming Palin for the Tucson shooting was a calumny when it was put forward by many on the left in 2011. To have it resurface in 2017 is inexcusable and definitely not a career booster. But Harris just keeps going, informing us that Palin’s pain isn’t sincere.

Thus, another distinction Bennet wasn’t seeking: He’s the only one whose words at the trial can be taken at face value, his pain obviously sincere.

Frankly, he’s making the same mistake James Bennet made. He’s half-remembering a time when the entire media had decided that any attack on Sarah Palin was fair game. It got to the point that comedians felt it was okay to make jokes on TV about the statutory rape of her 14-year-old daughter. Oops! Claiming she wasn’t the mother of one of her children. Why not? If there was a line at all that couldn’t be crossed it was far beyond what you could say in public about any other political figure. Harris is still writing as if it’s 2009, just as his pal Bennet was writing as if it were 2011.

Finally, he gets to the actual offense, i.e. the reason his friend is in court this week:

On a tight deadline, Bennet added lines to an editorial recalling the 2011 shooting of Democratic Rep. Gabby Giffords and suggesting that political material from Palin’s PAC — with what looked like rifle cross-hairs over Giffords’ district — may have contributed to the violence. In fact, as a correction acknowledged, there is no evidence indicating that Giffords’ shooter was motivated by the Palin’s group’s material.

Lost in the largely feigned outrage was the obvious common sense of the editorial’s main argument: Violent imagery and language invoked as metaphor in politics can stimulate disturbed minds in unpredictable ways, so responsible politicians ought to dial it back.

I can assure you my outrage over this is not feigned. In fact, at this point I want to shout into a megaphone so maybe John Harris can hear it: The editorial’s man argument wasn’t true!

How do we know? Because Bennet only had two data points in his piece, the Alexandria baseball shooting and the Tucson shooting. In the case of the baseball shooting, his staff looked but couldn’t find any specific incitement from Bernie Sanders. Bennet said so in his deposition:

One of the questions I’d asked was is there an example of really incendiary rhetoric from Bernie Sanders? Is there a connection between — we didn’t see that word [incitement] and we didn’t see a connection between the victims in Virginia and any specific political incitement.

His other data point was the now corrected claim connecting Palin’s map to Tucson. That was his “clear” example. Take it away and he’s left with an argument supported by nothing. And still, John Harris is stepping on the rake, defending this disaster as if there was a solid point in there somewhere. The editorial’s main argument wasn’t lost because of feigned outrage, it collapsed for lack of evidence under genuine outrage. Harris’ piece winds up with one more bit of praise for James Bennet, professional truth-teller:

…as his self-critical testimony this week showed, he has still devoted his professional life to truth-telling — with the humility to recognize that no one is in full possession of the truth.

The Times whole defense strategy is that this was just a mistake. So having Bennet admit it was his mistake isn’t exactly a noble act at this point. It’s actually self-serving in the current context.

In any case, this story isn’t about possession of The Truth writ large. It’s about one specific truth, a truth that was known by the majority of people in the news business long before 2017. Sadly it was not known by James Bennet or the people working with him at the NY Times. If he, and they, were as devoted to truth-telling as Harris claims, they’d have spent two minutes checking their facts. That they ran the editorial connecting Palin to mass murder without doing so doesn’t show devotion to truth-telling. What it shows is hasty and shoddy work and, arguably, reckless disregard for the truth.

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