Plagiarism charges against Monica Crowley put her publishing house on stage

These mettle tests are going to come more quickly than we thought, I guess. HarperCollins: you're up!

7 Jan 2017 6:56 pm 37 Comments

Today Andrew Kaczynski of CNN published this article. It says that author and TV figure Monica Crowley, recently appointed to the Trump administration as a national security aide, plagiarized many portions of her 2012 book “What The (Bleep) Just Happened.”

You can judge the clarity and severity of the case yourself by scrutinizing Kaczynski’s work. To me it shows that the author (or ghost writer) just didn’t care about avoiding the most common form of plagiarism: lifting passages from texts that informed your writing. One or two of these would be a minor violation of publishing standards. The pattern Kaczynski uncovered is a different matter entirely.

The part that most interested me is the statement from the Trump transition team:

Monica’s exceptional insight and thoughtful work on how to turn this country around is exactly why she will be serving in the Administration,” a statement from a transition spokesperson said. “HarperCollins — one of the largest and most respected publishers in the world — published her book which has become a national best-seller. Any attempt to discredit Monica is nothing more than a politically motivated attack that seeks to distract from the real issues facing this country.

Two things about this response stand out.

It goes from zero to 60 on the politicize-everything dial, signaling to Trump supporters that there is nothing here about authorship, publishing, standards, or trust, nothing that might transcend politics, just political combat in another form: a CNN investigation.

The statement draws HarperCollins and its accumulated reputation into the transaction, as if to say, “Look, the editors respected the author and her work enough to publish the book, so obviously these charges are a cheap ploy coming from political opponents because HarperCollins is one of the largest and most respected publishers in the world.”

Normal procedure would be something like this: The author apologizes, perhaps blaming the lapses on a wayward researcher or ghost writer. The publisher tries to fix the problems in future reprints, if there are any. If sales have slowed to a crawl the book is allowed to go out of print and that becomes the solution. In severe cases there might be a recall of books left on the shelves. (Unlikely this would qualify for that.) Also unlikely: the publishing company pretends like nothing happened and the author is allowed to skate.

Complication #1: HarperCollins is part of the Murdoch empire. Doesn’t mean that Rupert tells them what to do, but it is a fact.
Complication #2: CNN had a similar plagiarism case involving one of its own: Fareed Zakaria. The network was reluctant to acknowledge any problem. (You can imagine how that will play online.)

Here’s what I want you to watch for: Harper Collins is going to be asked about this. They refused to reply to Andrew Kaczynski, but when the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal call for comment it becomes harder to just… stonewall. If the normal sequence I just described unfolds — Crowley acknowledges the problem and apologizes, HarperCollins either fixes the reprint or lets the book drift out of print — then it’s a two-day story and everyone forgets about it.

But… The Trump transition team already went from zero to 60 on the politicize-everything dial. And Trump is known for backing his people when they get into scrapes. Monica Crowley may decide she did nothing wrong, or nothing “the other side” wouldn’t do. She may decide to tough it out, or even escalate this until it’s a full-blown controversy, complete with charges of fake news (Kaczynski’s report) and hypocrisy (CNN’s Zakaria problem.)

Then the focus will turn to HarperCollins. They would like to make this go away quietly so no one remembers which publisher it was, but for that they need the cooperation of a chastened author. What if Crowley refuses? What if Trump rage Tweets? Then if HarperCollins takes action on the book, it feeds the culture war controversy, and their quiet resolution is blown to bits. If they don’t comment and don’t take action then it becomes a clear case of intimidation in the climate created by Trump, which won’t sit well with editors on staff or writers under contract.

So keep your eye on this. We may get an early read on how corruptible our cultural institutions actually are.

UPDATE, Jan. 8: “HarperCollins spokeswoman Tina Andreadis says the publisher has no comment but is ‘looking into the matter.'” We have our first positive sign. According to the AP, HarperCollins is reviewing the charges of plagiarism. That’s good only because it’s 100 percent normal, what any professional publisher would do. Therefore HarperCollins passed the first test, refusing to suspend standard procedure.

The author of the CNN investigation:

UPDATE, Jan. 9: Trump Pick Monica Crowley Plagiarized Parts of Her Ph.D. Dissertation. “Monica Crowley, President-Elect Donald J. Trump’s pick for a top National Security Council job, plagiarized numerous passages in her Ph.D. dissertation, Politico Magazine has found…”

UPDATE, Jan. 10. CNN reports: “Publisher HarperCollins said Tuesday that it will stop selling a book by Monica Crowley that a CNN KFile investigation found to have more than 50 instances of plagiarism.” Let’s review. CNN found multiple passages lifted from other writers. HarperCollins, after failing to respond to the original investigation, said it was looking into it. Politico said it found portions of Crowley’s PhD dissertation were also plagiarized. Then HarperCollins announced: “The book, which has reached the end of its natural sales cycle, will no longer be offered for purchase until such time as the author has the opportunity to source and revise the material.” Meanwhile, the Trump team has denounced the investigation that led to this point, calling it a “politically motivated attack.” Ordinarily, an author whose book was withdrawn from marketplace would acknowledge the problem and apologize, but Monica Crowley has so far said nothing and done nothing. The HarperCollins statement did not indicate that she was cooperating, or that she intended to revise the book to fix the sourcing problems. Remaining questions: Will the Trump team react further? Will Crowley keep pretending that none of this is happening? Will Columbia University take some sort of action about accusations of plagiarism in her PhD?

Finally, the Trump team invoked the good name and professional reputation of HarperCollins when it defended Crowley. But now the professional judgment of that same HarperCollins is that the book should no longer be sold. If the publishing house agreed with the Trump team that this was nothing but an unscrupulous attack by enemies of the incoming administration it would not have taken the action it did. If the Trump team truly respected the judgment of HarperCollins — which it called “one of most respected publishers in the world” — then it would have to re-consider its initial reaction. So far there is no sign of that.

UPDATE, Jan. 16. Today Monica Crowley backed down. She won’t take the job. So far she has not addressed the plagiarism charges at all. My read on this event:

We learned something today. In this instance, at least, the Trump camp lacked the will, the skill or the foresight to play the “we make our own reality” hand and win with it. It tried to put down the press, but wound up raising its spirits. Granted, the underlying matter is small: one job on the national security team that will not go to Trump’s first pick. But let’s be clear about what happened.

Team Trump threw up a reality distortion field after CNN’s investigation broke: This is not journalism. This is not plagiarism. This is a politically motivated attack. Monica Crowley will be serving in the new Administration. That’s what they said. In other words: Your reality, CNN, is that you have found the sort of plagiarism that would normally sink candidates and appointees to public office because it’s just so blatant. Our reality is: This is culture war — liberalism — disguised as investigative reporting. And we are going to show you that your reality is weaker than ours. Now watch us… They then proceeded to behave as if the CNN investigation never happened. Crowley followed that line too: this isn’t happening. We’ll show them.

But Team Trump didn’t know how to play that game. The first sign of this was invoking the cultural authority of HarperCollins as support for Crowley. Anyone familiar with the book business could have told them that no normal publisher would back them up by agreeing to treat CNN’s findings as a non-event. Plagiarism is a problem. Within days Harper Collins said it would stop selling the book. Not: we don’t see any problem. Not: we have no comment because this isn’t happening. Not: Trump spoke to Rupert and the book stays. If you want to override the press, you need others to join your distortion field. If they won’t, then don’t invoke their good name. Come on! This is “we make our own reality 101.” But Team Trump mishandled it. They couldn’t execute.

Despite that little tactical mistake they could have struck a blow against investigative reporting by continuing with their silence (this isn’t really happening) and seating Crowley as intended on the National Security Council, even with her mushrooming plagiarism problem— or maybe because of it, if you want to get radical. For it’s one thing to be mean to reporters at a press conference. It’s a far greater demonstration of power to act as if damaging revelations with solid proof behind them never happened, and proceed with your plans. That would be demoralizing for the press. And that would be the Bannon way: show these people there’s a new reality that their coastal enclave had kept them from.

Instead: Investigative reporting was vindicated. The reality — plagiarism is a problem — could not be overridden. A norm held. Trump lost his pick for the position before she started. And the attempt to describe it all as culture war by coastal elites fell apart. The kicker: It was CNN that done it, after Trump had described them as “fake news.”

“We make our own reality,” Team Trump boasted. Actually, you don’t. Not this time. If you want to show how post-press corps you are — how their reality is not your reality — you don’t let Monica Crowley quit. On principle.

37 Comments

Chuck Long says:

“Complication #2: CNN had a similar plagiarism case involving one of its own: Fareed Zakaria. The network was reluctant to acknowledge any problem. (You can imagine how that will play online.)”

Well, yeah. The manner in which CNN handled Mr. Zakaria’s plagiarism has helped to shape modern precedent in the way such cases are handled. It would be derelict not to take this into account.

Make no mistake, Crowley’s plagiarism is extensive and blatant, and she should pay a price for it. Being a no-plagiarism purest, I’d have no problem with her losing her NSA appointment and being black-listed from all future media gigs. However, I don’t get a say in deciding Crowley’s punishment, and precedent being what it is — thanks in no small part to CNN — I can understand those who might rally to her support, even for no other reason than to rub CNN’s nose in it.

If ever there was a scoop worthy of being passed on to a competitor, this is it. CNN has no business reporting on plagiarism so long as Zakaria is still pulling a paycheck from them.

Paula Gorski says:

AMEN!!!

Margaret says:

By this reasoning any news entity employing anyone who has been convicted of or who is under official investigation for any crime would have to stop reporting on said crime. That’s absurd.

William Devane says:

Since Crowley’s book was a NY Times best seller, she probably made millions. The people she plagiarised should file a class action suit and sue her for the profits.

So because CNN found the plagiarism, she gets a pass and its no big deal?

Whereas, is, say, the Washington Post found it, she’d be in trouble?

Interesting – I didn’t realize that what person/outlet reported on reality would have such a big impact on how we should judge that reality.

I don’t think the response would have been any different if the Post had reported the story.

Actually since Ms Crowley is applying for a government position involving national security, her past judgment and behavior is very relevant regardless of the actions of Mr Gupta.

“Two wrongs don’t make a right” didn’t your parents tell you that? Besides, I don’t think plagiarism is a criminal offense. This is a matter of what is acceptable to the discourse community, and mostly that intellectual property has dollar sign attached to it. Since information isn’t free, then plagiarism has a bigger significance in the world of authorship. The Greeks were flattered by plagiarism, but in today’s world, shame & humiliation, as well as a wrecked career, is the price one pays. Simple attribution would have sufficed for Crowley. Trump’s alt-right team machinations are dangerous in the world of serious grown-ups where human lives are at stake. The Presidency and our government is not a game.

Well put, Chuck Long (and loved your work QBing the Iowa Hawkeyes years ago). I would add that at some point before too long CNN will have Monica Crowley on as a talking head trotting out the far right view on something as one of 4 so-called experts spewing opinion in the place of actual reportage. CNN is now a contemptible, craven sinkhole, even if those doing actual reporting as in this instance still have scruples and on occasion are allowed to do a good job in the spaces between panels of 4 inane ‘experts’/bloviators.

Prediction: None of the agents here — not Crowley, not Trump, not HarperCollins, not Murdoch, not CNN — will suffer at all from this episode, not least because U.S. news media will not pursue it.

I’ve liked and shared it anyway.

David J. Krupp says:

Lex Alexander, you are correct. The fourth estate is now no estate.

Hi, Lex. If this..

Harper Collins is going to be asked about this. They refused to reply to Andrew Kaczynski, but when the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal call for comment it becomes harder to just… stonewall.

…doesn’t happen, then, yes, you will be right.

Donna Morel says:

After conducting extensive research discovering verifiably fabricated and plagiarized passages in several books authored by C. David Heymann, Simon and Schuster stonewalled my several requests to recall his books. Heymann’s fabrications were unwittingly utilized by biographers, historians, and various media outlets, including Evan Thomas and most recently, Larry Tye, and by the New Yorker and NPR. The publishing house falsely promoted Heymann as a Pulitzer Prize nominee, and on its website it continues to list his books as recommended resources for educators and students.

Not only did Simon and Schuster ignore my requests, it stonewalled investigative reporter David Cay Johnston, with whom I worked and provided my research for a 2014 Newsweek cover story about Heymann’s litany of literary fraud. Simon and Schuster stonewalled NPR after it issued a retraction of its Heymann book recommendation and a book excerpt that contained his fabrications, and it stonewalled the Columbia Journalism Review.
http://www.newsweek.com/2014/09/05/c-david-heymanns-career-serial-fabulist-266876.html
http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2009/02/02/ms-kennedy-regrets
http://www.cjr.org/the_audit/simon_schuster_keeps_its_fabul.php
http://www.npr.org/blogs/ombudsman/2015/02/11/354642869/correcting-an-american-legacy

Similarly, Penguin Random House has consistently refused to issue a public retraction of Heymann’s fabrication littered “RFK: A Candid Biography,” (from which Thomas and Tye utilized fabricated material) in spite of information that I obtained documenting that Penguin directly knew of credible fraud claims at the time of the book’s publication, and that Heymann got the green light to include invented people in “RFK” simply by asserting to Penguin that the people he invented were dead.

So my bet: Harper Collins will do nothing. Publishing houses are concerned about profit, not ethics.

Whether or not this rises to a dustup that forces Crowley to give up her NSA gig, I think it’s fascinating that for the second time in a week, one of the conservative imprints at a Big Five publishing house—following on Threshold Editions at S&S, with the Milo Y book—has been drawn ire from the progressive left which not coincidentally also opposes Trump, and is looking for ways to vent their anger about the coming administration. I think we will see more of this, as Crown has one of these imprints (Forum), as does Viking (Sentinel). Interesting times for book publishers. I expect to see left-leaning books over the next four years, as well. Note: I am a freelance editorial consultant and literary agent, and as a left-leaning editor did some of my best, and most successful books during the George W Bush years, including Ambassador Joseph Wilson’s “The Politics of Truth: Inside the Lies that Led to War and Betrayed My Wife’s CIA Identity” (Carroll&Graf, 2004).

It didn’t seem to be a problem with the once Senator now VP Biden- Seems a double standard is at work here.

Monica Crowley is still on track to join the Administration. Biden because of his plagiarism problems had to drop his bid for the presidency in 1988. So, yes, double standard.

I think some perspective is called for here, Ms. Crowley is not running for President (even if this accusation is true). The media and establishment politicians are waging war on the new administration because they have been flushed from cover.

Who said she was running for president? I described her as a soon-to-be aide, which she is. There’s not even a word in my post about what sort of consequences Ms. Crowley should suffer. Nothing at all about that. I did not, for example, recommend that she lose her job. All I did is describe what would normally happen in a plagiarism case, and how the Trump team has reacted so far. That’s it. And this you call “waging war?” You’re going to need to be a little tougher than that, given what’s coming.

So, yes, some perspective is called for here.

Mr Turner,
What should the standard for being held liable for plagerizing? Only if you’re a presidential candidate?
Is that what should be taught to children: it’s acceptable as long as you don’t get caught or run for president?
Ms Crowley is a well known public figure so it hardly seems that she’s being singled out for scrutiny.

Stephen Bach says:

Yet another indication of the disintegration of cultural values and integrity that have led to the impending inauguration of one of the most deceitful men in the history of our country. Thank you for standing up and making your voice heard. I’m sure you are now on Herr Trump’s infamous “watch list”.

Winston Churchill’s plagiarism is seldom referenced in current discussions.

Belinda Smith says:

Why don’t publishing houses check for plagiarism prior to printing?

They consider that the author’s responsibility. Fact checking and proper crediting is on the author. The contract may even say that. Not defending it, just explaining it because you asked.

Sue Novak says:

Funny — when Doris Kearns Goodwin was caught plagiarizing, she lost her position as a regular on PBS NewsHour. That was more than a dozen years ago, though. This post-fact / post-ethics era is certainly a different time.

When I tweeted about this yesterday, a Trump supporter sneeringly asked, “Bet if I scrolled through your tweets, I’d find you called out Biden and Obama, right?” I don’t even know what the Obama reference is about, but I resisted the urge to respond that I was tweeting like crazy about Biden back in 1987.

Jay, my major concern is that the entire Trump team has just flooded the system, and what should be a major scandal will barely register in light of everything else that’s going on. Still, we have to try, so thank you.

That’s why I focused on HarperCollins. Their system isn’t flooded. They either will or will not be intimidated. That matters.

Louise Jean Stokes says:

Refreshing to read intelligent and well considered comments. Gives me some hope that my good friend, the USA is not going to hell in a handwritten handbasket. We Aussies are not very proud of the damage Murdoch is doing to the rest of the world.

Ms. Stokes,
Rupert Murdoch doesn’t do any damage to the US that we don’t allow him to do to us. No one is forced to watch Fox news and it speaks volumes about those who continue to watch even after the sickening conduct of MULTIPLE ( not just Roger Ailes ) Fox employees.

Justin Case says:

Meanwhile, I heard that HarperCollins is set to release Crawley’s new novel, which she calls, “A Story of Two Towns”. As I understand it, it begins, “It was the worst of times, it was the best of times.”

Wesley Rolley says:

A comment and a question. (C) The actions of both principled organizations, Harper – Collins and Columbia will go a long way in determining whether or not every college student in the country thinks it is OK to plagiarize anything. (Q) How much responsibility does the media carry for the use of he said / she said journalism? Did that not underscore in the public mind that the only reality was political?

That is one of the problems with he said, she said reporting, yes. I wrote something along those lines here.

Wesley,
To be fair students plagerizing or even buying material to submit as their own is not a recent development.
But what it does seem to reinforce is the notion that cheating is okay as long as the potential gain is worth it.

Dave Gibson says:

Thank you for informing me. I’m sitting here in Iowa (10 miles from home of Grassley) and we need more of this.

Jay,
Part of me wonders if this didn’t provide a convient exit for Ms Crowley. Not that she would have wanted it this way, but given the long, slow train wreck to China thats in the new future just can’t help to wonder how many of his appointees have even the most basic grasp of just how far outside the norm this administration is looking.
The side show is about to become policy. Those who have enabled this fiasco are unlikely to have any brighter future than Nixon’s did
( Yes Pat Buchanan, but not sure just how I’d categorize him).
For all the bluster and boilerplate, it seems likely that we are going to experience a presidency that is potentially even more bipolar than that of Nixon (minus the competency and charm).

Randall Ross says:

Mr. Rosen:
Thank you for this real-time case study. Work like this will be very helpful moving forward as we keep our eye on the prize: our fragile Democracy.

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