February 9, 2022

On June 14, 2017, The New York Times’ editorial board published an editorial with the headline, “America’s Lethal Politics.”

James Bennet, who at that time was the Times’ editorial page editor, inserted passages into the original editorial that incorrectly linked the 2011 shooting of Rep. Gabby Giffords to a map circulated by Sarah Palin’s PAC that showed certain electoral districts under crosshairs.

Within 12 hours, The Times Opinion section issued a correction that said “no such link was established.” But it was too late. The Times had a mess on its hands. Palin, the former vice presidential candidate and governor of Alaska, sued the Times.

On Tuesday, with the trial finally underway, we saw the most dramatic moments yet as Bennet, who is no longer with the Times, took to the stand.

Palin attorney Shane Vogt asked Bennet, “Would it be fair to say that you were determined to use the word ‘incitement’ in the ‘America’s Lethal Politics’ editorial?”

Bennet said, “No.”

But, in saying he wanted to make it clear for the record, Bennet added, “This is my fault. I wrote those sentences. I’m not looking to shift the blame.”

The more we see from this trial, the more sloppy the Times editorial board looks. The editorial in question now appears to have been rushed and parts were, obviously, not well researched.

The Washington Post’s Sarah Ellison wrote, “Beyond the legal issues, the courtroom phase of this case is shining a not-always-flattering light on editing practices within one of the most prestigious media outlets in the world.”

Now, that’s not the same as saying Palin should win her case. She must prove “actual malice” and that’s a hard standard to meet. Emails introduced in the trial showed that Bennet wrote that he felt “horrible” about the mistake immediately after the editorial went online.

Palin’s attorney asked Bennet on Tuesday, “Did you ever apologize to Gov. Palin?”

Bennet said, “My hope is that as a consequence of this process now I have.”

Perhaps you notice in your local newspaper when corrections say, “We regret the error.” The Times, as a policy, does not do that. In a deposition, Bennet said, “Rather meaningless, because they say it every time. Obviously we regret the error. And The Times, as a matter of policy, as, actually — is not to — is not to apologize.”

Bennet, however, might have believed he already apologized to Palin. In the aftermath of the editorial and in response to questions from CNN media reporter Oliver Darcy, Bennet wrote in an email, “I’m not aware that Sarah Palin has asked for an apology, but, yes, I, James Bennet, do apologize to her for this mistake.”

But Washington Post media critic Erik Wemple wrote Tuesday, “That apology, however, didn’t proceed to CNN; it apparently went to the New York Times communications shop. Asked in his deposition whether the apology ever made it to Darcy, Bennet said that to his ‘knowledge,’ it did not. Somewhere along the line, the apology appears to have been swallowed by the New York Times’s standards-and-practices bureaucracy. ‘What I assume happened was that this — my — my response was brought into compliance with Times policy,’ he said in the deposition.”

Again, this goes back to the Times’ policy to not regret its errors.

But, at this moment, the Times surely must regret how this all went down.

It was an embarrassing day for Bennet and the Times, but, Wemple wrote, “​​Listening to the session via remote audio link, Bennet sounded sincere in discussing his apology attempt. He came off like a journalist ashamed of a gobsmacking error and not at all like a journalist acting with malice against a washed-up Republican politician. And that’s the distinction that’ll determine this case.”

For more on Tuesday’s courtroom drama, check out stories from Politico’s Josh Gerstein and CNN’s Sonia Moghe.


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What’s next for CNN?

From all accounts, a lot of CNN staffers remain upset, confused and nervous in the wake of Jeff Zucker’s resignation as president.

Let’s start with the fact that most CNN staffers, especially the journalists, seemed to really like working for Zucker. He cared about their work, had their backs and acted, as CNN reporter Brian Stelter described it, like a “heat shield,” protecting the talent from other executives, critics, questions about ratings and even attacks from the former president.

The boss at a news organization who is hands-on with the journalism and protective of his staff is a combination that any cable news operation would love to have. So you can understand why staffers are upset to see this particular boss leave.

Just as naturally, you can understand the anxiety whenever a well-liked and respected boss leaves. Will the next person in charge be quite as engaging and accommodating? Will they have the same vision as the boss who just left? Or will they look to tear up the playbook and try something completely different?

Now that CNN’s owner, WarnerMedia, is about to merge with Discovery, could major changes be on the horizon?

Variety’s Brian Steinberg writes, “Will Discovery change the recipe? There are signs that executives at the company see Zucker’s departure as an opportunity for a reset at CNN, according to people familiar with their thinking.”

That reset could include a charge to be less opinionated, and more straight in news coverage.

Having said that, I’m going to push back on the claim that CNN is the liberal version of Fox News. That’s not even close to being true.

Yes, we’ve seen prime-time hosts such as Don Lemon and the recently-fired Chris Cuomo make their opinions abundantly clear. There’s no mistaking where on the political spectrum they stand. We’ve also seen various anchors, such as Brianna Keilar, go on the attack against Fox News and some of its on-air personalities.

But to suggest that CNN has eschewed hard news for a left-wing agenda or round-the-clock opinion or wall-to-wall advocacy journalism simply is not true. Is there some opinion? Yes. But is the bulk of the on-air programming made of fact-based, truthful and informative journalism? Absolutely.

But perception might be greater than reality.

Steinberg writes, “There’s no arguing that the network hasn’t become more polarizing as it has become more prominent. And while CNN’s on-air product continues to include stories from around the world and on a range of topics, it has become defined by its political coverage, even as issues like climate change and race in society have taken on new prominence. Under Zucker, CNN has launched new teams devoted to those topics, and one longtime staffer acknowledges there is more CNN could do to highlight other areas of the news cycle.”

Frankly, whoever is in charge might be more interested in two things: ratings and advertising dollars.

Steinberg wrote, “Advertisers in news programming may not be interested in the same old stuff from CNN. One media buyer suggests that a full rebrand of CNN could potentially draw new sponsors, but advertisers who stay away from news and opinion programs because they can be polarizing aren’t likely to change their stance. Those who flock to news, this buyer says, ‘want to see ratings increases to help drive business.’”

But Steinberg was likely correct when he finished his piece by writing, “Executives charged with leading CNN in the wake of Zucker’s exit have vowed to staffers in internal meetings that his vision for the network will remain intact, but chances are Discovery will dim Zucker’s flash.”

Lester Holt’s super interview

(Courtesy: NBC News)

NBC is airing this Sunday’s Super Bowl, which means one of its journalists will conduct the Super Bowl interview with the president.

That someone is Lester Holt.

The “NBC Nightly News” anchor will sit down this week with President Joe Biden. The interview, which will be taped ahead of time in Virginia, will air during the Super Bowl LVI pregame show. Portions of the interview will air on Thursday’s “NBC Nightly News.” Additional highlights will air Friday on the “Today” show, the “NBC Nightly News,” MSNBC, and NBC News NOW.

Vanity Fair and the Jeffrey Epstein story

The New Yorker’s Isaac Chotiner has a new story out with this really intriguing headline: “Why Didn’t Vanity Fair Break the Jeffrey Epstein Story?”

The piece is centered around journalist Vicky Ward, who claims that Vanity Fair prevented her from publishing the story of two sisters, Annie and Maria Farmer — who said that they had been sexually abused by Epstein and Ghislaine Maxwell. In her podcast, Ward claims Epstein convinced Vanity Fair’s then-editor, Graydon Carter, not to publish the sisters’ accounts.

But check out this passage from Chotiner’s story: “Ward and I spoke on the phone, and I asked her to forward emails that could verify some of her claims about Vanity Fair. Many of the things that she told me — and had told her podcast listeners — turned out to be untrue. All publications, including this one, at times look back on stories and regret not pursuing them further. But Ward’s claim that Vanity Fair prevented her from exposing Epstein misrepresents a more complicated reality.”

So complicated and much too detailed to summarize succinctly in the space I have here. But check out Chotiner’s story. It’s interesting.

Armed with only a notepad

CBS News’ Enrique Acevedo reporting on journalists murdered in Mexico. (Courtesy: CBS News)

As CBS News accurately reports, Tijuana, Mexico, has one of the highest murder rates in the world and journalists are among the victims. Nine reporters were murdered in Mexico last year, and four murdered journalists were the targeted victims in January of this year alone.

CBS News’ Enrique Acevedo filed a report for “CBS Mornings” on Tuesday and he opened with this chilling truth: “What’s happening in Mexico can be described as a war on truth, only one side has AK-47 machine guns while the other is holding a notepad. Historically, most of the journalists are targeted for exposing corrupt officials or gang members, but this recent surge in killings is fueling a public outcry for protection for the nation’s reporters.”

Acevedo reports that at least 148 journalists have been killed in Mexico since 2000 and 90% of those crimes remain unpunished.

Be sure to watch Acevedo’s report.

A win on campus

For this item, I turned it over to my colleague Barbara Allen, Poynter’s director of college programming.

Collegiate journalism got a big win this week. On Tuesday, a district court ordered a university to enact policy changes that would protect student journalists and their campus publications.

We first wrote about Haskell Indian Nations University in October 2020 after Jared Nally, editor-in-chief of the Indian Leader, the student paper, was issued a “directive” by the university president that forbade Nally from engaging in basic newsgathering activities. The order from the president was on university letterhead.

In response, the Student Press Law Center, the Native American Journalists Association and the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education wrote a 17-page letter to former Haskell President Ronald Graham, pointing out that his actions were “wildly unconstitutional.” FIRE then took up the case and sued the university in March 2021. Then in May 2021, as reported in Native News Online, The Lawrence, Kansas-based college’s board of regents fired Graham after an internal investigation showed he had stifled the rights of students and faculty to free speech.

This week’s order, issued by a Kansas district court, states Haskell “cannot reinstate the policy, or establish any new policy that requires student speech to conform to amorphous values. In other words, the university must now allow all students to express themselves freely, even if administrators consider their expression ‘disrespectful,’” according to a press release from FIRE. The order also ensures university transparency in regards to the student paper’s funding and freedom to report on the administration.

Nally said in the release from FIRE, “I hope this case not only protects the next generation of student journalists at Haskell, but empowers individuals at other institutions to realize they have rights and options when it comes to using their voice.”

Like father, like son

A year-and-a-half ago, Mike Golic left ESPN. Now Mike Golic Jr. is leaving.

The senior Golic had co-hosted ESPN’s popular morning-drive radio show for two decades. Golic Jr., who joined ESPN in 2015, often appeared on the morning show with his dad. Most recently, Golic Jr. had been co-hosting an afternoon ESPN Radio national show with Chris Canty.

But Golic Jr. apparently turned down a new contract offer to stay. He confirmed he was leaving on Twitter: “‘life update’ tweet: yesterday was officially my last day at ESPN. it was 6.5 years of my professional life, but really it’s been all I’ve ever known. simply put, ESPN changed my life in ways I will never be able to properly express my gratitude for.”

Golic Jr. went on to thank colleagues and added, “We’ll get to what comes next later.”

The New York Post’s Ryan Glasspiegel wrote, “One destination that would make sense for Golic Jr. is Dan Le Batard and John Skipper’s Meadowlark Media, where Golic Sr. contributes to various podcasts. It is also plausible that he could wind up calling college football games, as he played offensive line at Notre Dame. Also, the sports gambling companies have been making considerable offers to prominent talents for a couple of years now.”

As far as ESPN, Canty will continue to host his radio show with a rotating series of guest co-hosts.

Tuning in

NFL quarterbacks Patrick Mahomes, left, of the Kansas City Chiefs, Justin Herbert, center, of the Los Angeles Chargers, and Mac Jones, right, of the New England Patriots, stand during introductions before the Pro Bowl NFL football game last weekend. (AP Photo/David Becker)

Everyone complains (and for good reason) about how awful the NFL Pro Bowl is. It’s basically turned into a game of two-hand touch because no one wants anyone to get hurt.

While everyone is calling for changes — such as turning it into a skills competition or playing flag football — one thing that likely won’t happen is that the event will be canceled altogether.

Why? For all the bellyaching, people still watch. According to Sports Business Journal’s Austin Karp, Sunday’s Pro Bowl drew 6.7 million viewers across ABC, ESPN, DisneyXD. That’s the lowest number since 2006, and maybe not a good number for the NFL. But it’s still a decent TV number, especially this year with the Olympics as competition.

The 6.7 million is better than ABC/ESPN is going to get with something else at that time. And that’s still more than the total viewers who watched the final round of the PGA tournament in Pebble Beach (3.09 million), the Duke-North Carolina men’s basketball game (2.18 million) and the NHL All-Star Game (1.14 million) combined over the weekend.

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Tom Jones is Poynter’s senior media writer for He was previously part of the Tampa Bay Times family during three stints over some 30…
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