Plaintiff Sarah Palin again received a celebrity’s welcome for day two of the trial in which she accuses the New York Times of libeling her, but it was Times writer Elizabeth Williamson who remained on the witness stand. The morning was largely spent recounting—in excruciating detail—two specific days in June 2017, as Williamson experienced them. The first was the day the Times published the words that led Palin to sue them. The second was the day the Times issued a correction.
Amid her testimony, Williamson disclosed a few tidbits that, for journalists, ring uncomfortably true. For instance, when she got out of college, though she was dreaming of a journalism career, she initially worked in public relations because she had student loans and PR jobs “paid a lot better.” At another point, she revealed she would compose her Times editorials by typing directly into the paper’s content management system. (Every digital journalist reading this right now: “OMG, she was writing in the CMS?!”)
Perhaps Williamson’s most relatable bit of testimony, for the pixel-stained wretches out there, was when she described the way James Bennet, her boss, behaved after he realized he’d introduced a factual error into her piece while he was editing it. First, Bennet texted her around 11:30 p.m., when she’d already gone to sleep, writing, “Are you up?” and “Do we have it right?” Then, around 5 a.m. the next morning, Bennet emailed her and cc’d a Times fact-checker. He asked the two women to skip their morning meetings and “put your heads together” to figure out exactly how he had screwed up and how they could fix it.
Williamson delved into microscopic detail about the sequence of events that caused allegedly libelous sentences to appear in the paper. Nothing she said told the jury much it hadn’t already heard in her testimony yesterday. The shape of the incident is at this point quite clear. But the lawyers seemed intent to rehash the minutiae.
At the merciful lunch break, I grabbed some food in the courthouse’s cafeteria. And who should I see when I looked up from my sad yogurt but Gov. Palin herself, wandering in to purchase some sort of hot beverage. If there was any question about whether Palin qualifies under libel law as a “public figure,” her appearance in the courthouse canteen resolved it. Various law clerks and courthouse staffers who were eating their lunches froze mid-swallow, turned toward Palin, and openly gawked. “That’s Sarah Palin,” someone said, loud enough for all of us to hear.
Then, in a fantastic collision of tabloid universes, Michael Avenatti—who was at the courthouse because he was being tried on fraud charges—walked in. Palin strolled over to greet him. The celebrity plaintiff and celebrity defendant briefly, and warmly, bantered, before each went their separate way. (Hours later, Avenatti was convicted of stealing $300,000 from a pornographic film actress.)
When Palin’s trial resumed in the afternoon, it was more of the same. Williamson, still on the stand, answered every conceivable question about the process that led to the Times’ error. In her depiction, hasty decision-making led to a regrettable, but wholly unintentional, snafu.
Here, I must make a confession: Just yesterday, when I was rushing to file my dispatch from this trial’s opening, I wrote that the shooting of congressman Steve Scalise occurred while he was playing softball. In fact, as multiple Slate readers helpfully emailed me to note, he was playing baseball. The amazing/terrible thing about this is that my editor asked me to double-check the facts about the shooting. And I did. And somehow I still got it wrong. (A correction is forthcoming.) Why am I highlighting my own ineptitude? I tell you this to illustrate the fact that These Things Happen Sometimes. Journalists are human. Many years ago, when I was a rookie reporter, a crusty older editor imparted this morsel of wisdom: “To write,” he said, “is, eventually, to goof.” The key question when we goof is: Was it an honest mistake? Or did something sinister underlie it?
That’s the question at the heart of this trial. But only one person truly knows what James Bennet’s intent was when he wrote those fateful words. Likewise, only one person truly knows what happened to Sarah Palin after he wrote them.
At the end of the day, Judge Rakoff admonished both sides for today’s slow pace, and implored them to speed things up when the trial resumes next week. “The two people who the jury wants to hear from,” he said, “are Mr. Bennet and Ms. Palin.”