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New York Times writer grilled for hours on second day of Palin libel trial

Sarah Palin listens as witness Elizabeth Williamson testifies in Palin's defamation trial against the New York Times at the U.S. Courthouse in Manhattan on Feb. 3 in this courtroom sketch. (Jane Rosenberg/Reuters)
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NEW YORK — Attorneys spent the second day of Sarah Palin’s defamation trial against the New York Times grilling the author of an erroneous editorial in sometimes excruciating detail — going so far as to probe her reading habits more than a decade ago, and at one point prompting the judge to consult a dictionary.

It’s the first libel case against the Times to go to trial in 18 years, and it is a test of decades of broad legal protections for news organizations writing about public figures. Elizabeth Williamson — author of a flawed 2017 editorial on gun policy at the heart of the case — sat on the stand for several hours Friday while Times lawyers sought to portray her as a careful, evenhanded journalist, and Palin’s team accused her of being part of an organization out to smear the former governor of Alaska and vice-presidential candidate.

On the stand in a Manhattan federal courthouse, Williamson recalled her memories from the morning of June 14, 2017, when a shooting at a Republican baseball practice in Alexandria, Va., injured several members of Congress, some gravely, including Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.). “I thought that as the facts were emerging that this might be a significant event,” she testified.

Williamson wrote an editorial that afternoon, entitled “America’s Lethal Politics,” which Palin alleges defamed her by connecting a 2011 mass shooting in Arizona to an advertisement her political action committee had put out months earlier, featuring crosshairs superimposed over that part of the state as well as other congressional districts. Although the ad named Democratic Congress members including then-Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.), who was wounded in the shooting, fact-checkers have debunked the notion that it inspired the shooting.

Williamson’s testimony amounted to a detailed retelling of an error in the making. She explained how the piece in question was conceptualized, researched, written, edited and in the end corrected — twice. But her testimony and the trial’s evidence made clear that responsibility for some of the most problematic parts of the editorial fell to the Times’s editorial page editor at the time, James Bennet, who is expected to testify next week.

Williamson said she initially pitched an editorial on gun policy but that Bennet sent her an email suggesting she also explore “whether there’s a point to make about the rhetoric of demonization and whether it incites people to this kind of violence.”

She said that email changed the focus of the editorial, and testified that after she filed it, Bennet rewrote it and added the lines Palin is suing over: “The link to political incitement was clear [in 2011],” the final editorial read. “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 crosshairs.”

Bennet also edited the piece to suggest that the 2017 shooting did not have as clear a motivator: “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 of the right.”

Williamson’s initial draft had in fact included a link to an ABC News piece noting there was no known ties between the ad from Palin’s PAC and the Arizona shooting.

Lawyers questioned Williamson about every aspect of her research and writing process, going all the way back to her reading habits in 2011. Attorneys for the Times spent significant time walking Williamson through emails and conversations she had with her editors after they realized they had a problem.

Palin’s team, on the other hand, sought to portray Williamson and the Times as selective in their outrage — they asked her if she had written about a performance of Shakespeare in the Park during which the murdered Julius Caesar character was a Donald Trump look-alike or the time Kathy Griffin tweeted a photo of her holding a gory likeness of a decapitated Trump head. (She had not.)

The result, as it played out, was a meticulous reconstruction of a complicated — and ultimately tortured — editing process.

“I really reworked this one,” Bennet told Williamson in an email sent before the editorial’s publication. “I hope you can see what I was trying to do. Please take a look. Thank you for the hard work today and I’m sorry to do such a heavy edit.”

Williamson responded: “No worries the lead does a much better job of conveying how incredibly awful this was.”

Later that night, another editor emailed Williamson that the article was “superb” and “perfectly tuned.” But after the Times published the piece, the same colleague wrote to Williamson that the “gun rights brigade is having a seizure” over the erroneous lines about Palin and the 2011 shooting.

During a phone call the next morning, Williamson recalled, Bennet “was obviously pretty crestfallen” about the flawed language. “And I was thinking what could I have done” to have avoided the “mistake,” she testified.

The two discussed a correction, and Williamson and her colleagues got to work. The Times eventually printed two corrections. The first noted that the story “incorrectly stated that a link existed between political rhetoric and the 2011 shooting of Representative Gabby Giffords. In fact, no such link was established.” The second correction noted that the crosshairs in Palin’s map had been superimposed over electoral districts, not individual Democratic lawmakers.

Though much of the attention in the case has focused on Bennet, Williamson berated herself for not paying enough attention to Bennet’s edits: “I did not read it thoroughly. In retrospect I wish I had because maybe we could have caught something before.”

The testimony was relatively subdued; most court watchers are waiting for key testimony from Palin and Bennet next week. But District Court Judge Jed Rakoff injected some pointed flourishes into the day after Williamson professed some confusion over Bennet’s instruction to write about the “rhetoric of demonization and whether it incites people to this kind of violence.”

Rakoff pressed her for her understanding of the word “incite.” When Williamson ventured that maybe Bennet had meant “inspire,” the judge made a show of pulling out a Merriam-Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary and flipped to find a page.

“It defines incite as to arouse to action, spur or urge on,” he said, reading a list of synonyms for good measure.

Rakoff then asked Williamson if that definition was recognizable to her, and she replied, “I think so.”

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