Times editor ‘crestfallen’ over editorial that prompted Sarah Palin suit, colleague testifies

“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 am 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 didn’t 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 wasn’t 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.

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