These mettle tests are going to come more quickly than we thought, I guess. HarperCollins: you're up!
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:
— andrew kaczynski (@KFILE) January 8, 2017
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.