Monica Crowley and the Death of the Plagiarism Scandal

Why a good plagiarism scandal doesn't mean what it used to...

Monica Crowley ImageEditor’s Note: As I was writing this article, news broke about additional plagiarism involving Crowley’s dissertation. I’ve woven it into a section below but the bulk was written before this news came out. 

Editor’s Note 2: After this article was published, it was reported that HarperCollins has announced it is stopping sale of the book

Update 01/12/17: CNN has done a more thorough analysis of Crowley’s dissertation and found “thousands” of plagiarized words.

Last week, Andrew Kaczynski at CNN reported that Monica Crowley, President-Elect Donald Trump’s pick for senior director of strategic communications for the National Security Council, had committed plagiarism in her 2012 book entitled What The (Bleep) Just Happened.

In the report, Kaczynski highlighted approximately 50 instances where there was text copied, without attribution, from a variety of sources.

The evidence is extremely clear and there’s little doubt that her book contains large amounts of copied and uncited text. While it’s unknown whether her publisher, HarperCollins, will take any action to pull or correct the book, what is known is that Trump’s transition team is standing by her, saying that the report is “Nothing more than a politically-motivated attack that seeks to distract from the real issues facing this country.”

Indeed, the scandal was shrugged off even before it was first reported and there’s little likelihood that the plagiarism, as clear as it is, will have any impact on Crowley’s future.

That’s why, as interesting as Crowley’s story is, the real news is the reaction to it. The Crowley scandal, much like the Melania Trump scandal, point to a shift in the way plagiarism is viewed and it’s it’s become very clear that shift means plagiarism is no longer the career-ender that it once was.

In fact, for some, plagiarism isn’t even a speedbump on their way to the top.

Understanding the Monica Crowley Plagiarism Scandal

Monica Crowley Plagiarism SampleThe facts of the Monica Crowley plagiarism scandal are fairly straightforward.

In 2012 Crowley published a book entitled What The (Bleep) Just Happened, a book that responds to the re-election of President Obama from the eyes of a conservative. The book contains no footnotes or in-text citations, but, as Kaczynski’s reporting clearly shows, contains significant copied text.

The pattern of copied text is consistent with text copied early in the writing process and then edited and manipulated as time went on and multiple passes through the book were made. This means, almost certainly, it was Crowley or her ghostwriter who put the text in the work, not an editor down the line.

Sadly, this wasn’t Crowley’s first run in with plagiarism.

In 1999, Crowley published an article for the Wall Street Journal on the 25th anniversary of Nixon’s resignation. However, Slate pointed out similarities between that article and a 1988 one by Paul Johnson in Commentary magazine.

That led to an editor’s note in the WSJ though Crowley denied the allegations of plagiarism, saying that she never read Johnson’s article.

With the Trump Administration standing by Crowley, the only question is what HarperCollins will do. So far, the company is saying that it’s been made aware of the issue and is looking into it.

In the end though, even if the book is pulled, it seems unlikely that it will have much of an impact on Crowley’s career. Her place in the incoming administration is secure and, though there has been a great deal of media attention to the allegations, it hasn’t resulted in a great deal of backlash.

And it’s that response, or lack thereof, that is really at the heart of this story.

This story, along with others from the past few years, has illustrated that, plagiarism scandals, as we once knew them, are likely a thing of the past.

The Slow Death of the Plagiarism Scandal

Jonah Lehrer ImageIn many ways, Jonah Lehrer may be considered “peak plagiarism”. It was a plagiarism scandal that unfolded much like Jayson Blair did in 2003, but it was a truly modern story involving a famous freelance reporter who had risen to stardom only to have his career dashed on the rocks by plagiarism.

But it would also be the last time such a promising career was so completely destroyed (outside of a 2016 book that has not been well-received).

In 2014 BuzzFeed editor Benny Johnson was fired over plagiarism, only to receive a new job almost immediately at the National Review.

CNN has also faced its own challenges in this area. In 2012, shortly after Jonah Lehrer, Fareed Zakaria faced allegations of plagiarizing a paragraph in an article for Time Magazine.  Zakaria apologized and was suspended by CNN but reinstated after an investigation.

Then, two years later, he faced another set of allegations, involving both columns of his from 2011 and 2012 as well as his book, The Post-American World. Though the allegations weren’t as solid as the first, there was still not significant response to the allegations other than notes being affixed to much of his work he contributed to other organizations.

Zakaria continues to prominently work with CNN and other news organizations today.

In politics, things haven’t fared much better. “Peak plagiarism” there will likely be Senator John Walsh, who was forced to drop an election bid following a plagiarism scandal over his thesis at the Army War College. That plagiarism eventually cost him his degree as well.

However, Senator Walsh’s campaign was already struggling and behind, much like Joe Biden’s in 1987, when Biden abandoned a Presidential bid. Biden’s plagiarisms were re-raised in 2008, in a cycle that also saw President Barack Obama and Senator John McCain also accused of plagiarism. However, those scandals were lacking in evidence or significance.

None of those scandals had a significant impact on the 2008 election.

2016 was something of a resurgence for plagiarism in Presidential politics with accusations that Melania Trump’s speech at the Republican National Convention was plagiarized in part from Michelle Obama’s 2008 speech at the Democratic National Convention. While embarrassing and distracting, it did nothing to alter the course of the campaign.

And now, we have Crowley. A serious plagiarism accusation, a second for her, that was dismissed before it was even published.

So, how did we get here? Why was plagiarism, once a career-killer, now, in some cases, a speed bump dismissed even before a story breaks? It’s a complicated question, but there are several factors at play.

The Diminishing Significance of Plagiarism

As Farhad Manjoo (@fmanjoo) said on Twitter: “Plagiarism used to be a never-work-again offense but it’s become the sort of thing people weakly apologize for and its forgotten”

While that much seems mostly self-evident, the question is how we got there? The answer, is multi-part.

  1. Plagiarism Scandals/Stories Became More Common: Plagiarism detection software is ubiquitous, easy to use and, in many cases, cheap. Finding and detecting basic plagiarism is easy and, in a time where everything is written down, it’s trivial to find cases of plagiarism. That’s led to a rise in plagiarism allegations, which has made them seem more common, producing an air of “Everyone does it” even if that’s far from the truth.
  2. False or Borderline Stories Spread Quickly: Stories like Obama and McCain’s plagiarism scandals poisoned the well by attracting large amounts of attention to scandals that just weren’t there. Even as Crowley faces serious allegations, many point to Obama’s scandal as a counter, though the two are very different, even on a cursory analysis. This attention has led to a false equivalency, one I worry I may have inadvertently contributed to, and both made it seem more common and like all plagiarism stories are the same, trivial.
  3. Political Rhetoric: Calling someone a plagiarist is tantamount to calling them a liar and a fraud. However, in today’s political climate, liar and fraud are two of the more tame insults. In a year that talked about putting candidates in jail and sexual assault, “plagiarist” doesn’t even register as an insult.
  4. Desperate Times for Journalism: For journalists, these are trying times. Newspapers are cutting back and asking reporters to do more with less. That, by itself, leads to more plagiarism. The more common a misstep is, the easier it is to forgive. That’s especially true when publications are desperate to increase revenue, meaning that a reporter with a proven track record for making money can have their transgressions overlooked, including plagiarism.
  5. Whose Text Is It Anyway?: As with Melania Trump, Fareed Zakaria and similar tales, the stated author of the piece may not have written it. The opaque writing process of many authors makes it difficult to know just who to assign blame to, making many of the stories seem blameless.

In short, the rise in the number of plagiarism scandals, especially those of questionable importance, have hurt the gravity of the allegation while the political and journalism climates have made it far less of a transgression. Couple that with widespread ghostwriting and you have an atmosphere that’s ripe to devalue plagiarism as an ethical failing.

Unfortunately though, the complicated and multi-pronged nature of the problem makes it difficult, if not impossible, to come up with a simple solution. However, there is a ray of hope and it’s in the places that do still deeply value academic and creative integrity.

A Ray of Hope (And a Look at the New Allegations)

As I was writing this piece, Politico published details of similar plagiarism allegations involving Crowley’s dissertation. Written in 2000 for Columbia University, Politico was able to find a dozen instances where Crowley copied, without proper citation, from other sources.

Though Crowley often cited the source in her footnotes, she did not indicate that she was quoting the source.

These allegations could pose a serious challenge for Crowley. While allegations in her book may be easily dismissed (except, perhaps, by her publisher) allegations in her dissertation could mean she loses her degree.

Rescinding degrees for plagiarism, such as with Senator Walsh, is not uncommon and, if Columbia investigates and finds the plagiarism extensive enough, it certainly can do so.

Academia is one area where the importance of plagiarism has not waned and, if anything, has grown. This is especially true in research, where plagiarism has been a hot topic over recent years, especially internationally.

Still, academia does seem to take plagiarism serious. Failed grades, suspensions and expulsions are common in the classroom while retractions and firings are common in research.

While it’s difficult to say why this is the case, the reasons in the list above do offer a clue. Other than possibly “fabricator”, there is no worse insult in academia than “plagiarist” (at least not pertaining to the job itself), while the number of scandals have grown, a better system for investigating and enforcing them have kept false ones to a minimum.

Academia isn’t perfect when it comes to plagiarism, but it’s work and its systems have protected it from the  aloofness that has overtaken journalism, politics and the general public.

While it doesn’t provide a complete answer, it does show that having systems for investigating plagiarism (as well as trust in those systems) can go a long way to maintaining respect for originality.

As we see outside of academia, when every allegation of plagiarism carries the same weight, soon they all carry no weight at all.

Bottom Line

Plagiarism, as a scandal, isn’t what it used to be.

To be clear, most people do find plagiarism offensive and do think less of plagiarists. The problem is that it’s now very low on the list of things that impact ones perception, especially when looking at a political candidate.

But part of the problem is that a plagiarism accusation, by itself, is fairly meaningless. All accusations are given the same gravity, regardless of evidence, and how one views the story is often more impacted by their politics than the facts.

In that environment, there’s no way plagiarism can be taken very seriously and its no surprise that it was so quickly dismissed.

While the new allegations may have a bigger impact, the fact remains that the first was swatted away with little consequence. It would have taken two incidents, one in academia, to change the arc of the story at all.

Because, in the end, that’s what plagiarism has become in many circles, a minor distraction that can be either ignored or apologized away.

Sadly, without radical change, that’s what it will likely remain for some time, even as interest in the topic itself continues to grow.