Erik Wemple on the both-sides template and the Sarah Palin trial

(AP Photo/Scott Eklund, File)

Erik Wemple has been live-tweeting the Sarah Palin trial which means he’s really diving into the details that attorneys are wrangling over in court. But today he takes a step back and points to a more obvious problem, one that was pretty clearly involved in creating this mess for the NY Times in the first place. That problem was the desire to be fair to both sides in its statement on the Alexandria baseball shooting.

The real source of the error in the NY Times editorial was the decision to try to find an example of “incitement” to violence on the right that could be matched to the one on the left that had just happened in Alexandria the day before. And so editor James Bennet recalled the 2011 Tucson shooting and the consensus view that overheated, right-wing political speech had in some sense caused that shooting. The flashpoint of that argument in the days after the shooting was Sarah Palin’s targeting map. And so, late in the day with a deadline looming, Bennet wrote this:

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.

Conservatives and right-wing media were quick on Wednesday to demand forceful condemnation of hate speech and crimes by anti-Trump liberals. They’re right. Though there’s no sign of incitement as direct as in the Giffords attack, liberals should of course hold themselves to the same standard of decency that they ask for of the right.

Don’t miss the implication of that 2nd paragraph which is that the baseball shooting wasn’t as clearly inspired by partisan rhetoric as the Tucson shooting but even so liberals should hold themselves to the same standard. As Wemple points out, there was concern among Bennet’s colleagues that he might have gone too far by suggesting the baseball shooting was incitement like the Tucson shooting, i.e. he was being too hard on the left.

When Bennet took over editing the piece later that day, in went the Palin PAC-Loughner linkage. On one of the pre-publication drafts, editor Linda Cohn placed some notes in the copy raising issues regarding the both-sides tone. “[D]o we know of any elected officials on the left who have incited violence? or just unaffiliated people online or comedians? … does this graph imply equivalence?”

The trail of emails and edits points to an odd divergence of journalistic effort: While staffers were digging for instances of left-wing incitement, their boss was busy propagating a bogus instance of right-wing incitement. There appeared to be universal oblivion to the editorial’s gaping inaccuracy. One staffer messaged Williamson after publication to applaud the “superb piece.”

Wemple concludes that a big part of the problem was the desire to both-sides the editorial: “The Times wanted to shed profound insight on an event that had occurred hours earlier, and the both-sides template was ready, as always, for deployment.”

I think he’s absolutely right as far as he goes. Bennet’s impulse, the one that got him into trouble and literally into court, was the desire to make a comparison to a similar situation with the party labels reversed. That was a way of softening the news he had to deliver that day, i.e. that a left wing Bernie Sanders fan had shot a bunch of Republicans with a rifle and likely would have killed them all if not for a heroic security detail.

But there’s arguably a bigger systemic problem here, one that Wemple alludes to but doesn’t focus on. Despite all of the layers of fact-checking and supposed expertise on staff, no one working on the editorial that day knew what they were talking about. They didn’t know that the 2011 shooting had no connection to Sarah Palin. They didn’t know that Democratic PACs had run similar targeting graphics before Palin did. They couldn’t think of any examples of left-wing violence potentially incited by political rhetoric.

All they really had, it seems, was a vague memory of the 2011 media consensus that right-wing violence was responsible for the Tucson shooting. And you really can’t blame them for that, at least not solely, because that was the conventional wisdom at the time. James Bennet didn’t get the idea that Palin incited Loughner out of nowhere. He got it from the media.

And that’s how you wind up with highly paid NY Times staffers whose only note of hesitation is that maybe they were being a bit unfair to the left for making the comparison to Palin. Yes, the impulse to make the comparison in the first place was an attempt to both-sides the piece but the deeper problem was the deeply partisan ignorance of everyone involved. The only person who knew better was Ross Douthat, a conservative columnist who emailed later that night to say the piece didn’t make sense. Having a conservative as a fact-checker in the first place would have spared everyone a lot of trouble. Maybe the Times should embrace a little ideological diversity.