Errors in a New York Times editorial that led to a libel lawsuit from former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin devastated the editor of that section at the time, a former colleague testified Friday.
New York Times reporter Elizabeth Williamson told a Manhattan federal court jury that when she was working as an editorial writer for the newspaper in June 2017, then-editor James Bennet rewrote much of what she’d drafted about the shooting at a GOP congressional baseball team practice in Virginia that left Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.) fighting for his life.
That rewrite introduced the main error Palin is suing over: a suggestion that a targeting map released by Palin’s political action committee inspired a shooting in Tucson six years earlier that gravely wounded Rep. Gabby Giffords (D-Ariz.) and killed six others.
The editorial triggered immediate blowback online, chiefly from gun-rights supporters who said there was no evidence that the map had anything to do with the Arizona shooting. Bennet quickly learned of the fury and reached out to Williamson.
“He was obviously crestfallen that this had happened. And I was obviously feeling for him,” said Williamson, who was called by Palin’s attorneys and was the only witness Friday.
Williamson said that before the controversy broke out, Bennet apologized for the “heavy edit” to what she’d written.
“I really reworked this one,” he said in an email to her that night that was shown to jurors.
The next morning Bennet emailed just after 5 a.m. to ask her to start drafting a correction. He ordered her and a colleague to skip the editorial board’s daily meeting to do it, she said.
Williamson said that she introduced a second error into her version of the editorial with wording that suggested the map Palin’s PAC released included crosshairs over 20 Democratic candidates when the sights actually appeared on their districts. She also acknowledged that on the night the editorial appeared she never closely read the version Bennet sent along nor the final copy sent by another staffer.
“I did not read it thoroughly. In retrospect, I wish I had,” she said.
While the Times issued two corrections within hours, Williamson said it was never her intent to suggest a direct link between the map and the Tucson shooting, but rather to observe that poisonous public discourse emerging from both ends of the political spectrum could have tragic real-world effects.
“It was clear people misunderstood the intent of the editorial,” she said during questioning by Palin lawyer Shane Vogt.
Williamson said Bennet’s insertion of the word “incitement” into the editorial in two places seemed to have fueled most of the negative reaction online.
“It was not the map,” she said. “That word….was problematic to our readers.”
During cross-examination of Williamson, Times lawyer David Axelrod sought to assure the jury that Williamson bore no hostility to Palin. Williamson testified that while working for the Wall Street Journal in 2008, she was in attendance at the Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minn. where Palin accepted the GOP vice presidential nomination.
“She was quite a sensation with her speech,” Williamson recalled. She said she did interviews with local residents to elicit their feelings towards Palin and later traveled with her as she returned to receive a hero’s welcome in her hometown of Wasilla, Alaska.
Much of Williamson’s testimony described the New York Times’ editing and fact checking practices, some of which seem almost like an anachronism in a time of rapid-fire political combat on Twitter. She said a typical editorial would be reviewed by at least six people, including the writer, various editors and fact checkers.
However, the passages inserted by Bennet escaped some of that scrutiny because they were added late in the process at deadline. Palin’s attorney Vogt said in his opening statement Thursday that Bennet was being urged to revamp the editorial section and make it more responsive to the news. Williamson said that’s what she was trying to do the day of the congressional baseball practice shooting.
“Being a daily newspaper, if you make it a day later, it would be irrelevant,” she said. “It was truncated. We had to do it swiftly.”
At the close of Friday’s session, Judge Jed Rakoff admonished the lawyers to pick up the pace. Bennet and Palin are expected as witnesses in the case next week.