clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

What Trump aide Monica Crowley's plagiarism scandal says about conservative publishing

President-Elect Donald Trump Holds Meetings At Trump Tower Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

Monica Crowley, Donald Trump’s pick for senior director of strategic communications for the National Security Council, plagiarized large chunks of her last book, CNN reports.

CNN’s report clearly demonstrates more than 60 instances of plagiarism in Crowley’s book, leaving little room for argument, but that’s not stopping Trump’s team: A Trump transition spokesperson told CNN that Crowley could not have plagiarized — the reasoning essentially being that her book is published by HarperCollins, and HarperCollins is respected. The spokesperson also called such attempts to discredit her “nothing more than a politically motivated attack.” HarperCollins, meanwhile, has withdrawn the book from circulation.

The Crowley scandal is the most recent to rock the world of conservative trade publishing. In late December, the Simon & Schuster imprint Threshold Books announced that it would be publishing a book by professional troll Milo Yiannopoulos, an announcement met with outrage and threats of a boycott.

Though Crowley and Yiannopoulos work with different publishers, taken together the two scandals point to a larger pattern in conservative trade book publishing. Since about 2002, when the so-called Big Five book publishers that dominate trade publishing began to aggressively court the Fox News market, conservative publishing has systemically abandoned its old appreciation of facts, data, and intellectual rigor in favor of outrage-based punditry steeped in dog whistles, revisionist history, and weaponized nostalgia. Now, with the signing of Yiannopoulos and similar figures who are likely to follow, conservative imprints are perfectly positioned to profit off our current “post-truth” moment.

When it launched in 2010, Broadside Books, the HarperCollins imprint that published Crowley’s plagiarized book, explicitly positioned itself as an antidote to that trend, as a place for serious, intellectual conservative thought. But over the course of its history — and culminating with the publication of Crowley’s plagiarized book — it has proven to be less a dismissal of the trend and more an embodiment of it.

Crowley appears to have a habit of word-for-word plagiarism

Crowley, a prominent conservative pundit and former Fox News contributor, isn’t a prolific author at the level of a Glenn Beck or a Rush Limbaugh. She’s written a few books on Nixon (she has been described as his confidante), but her only contribution to the kind of polemic that is the bread and butter of most conservative book publishers is 2012’s What the (Bleep) Just Happened?: The Happy Warrior’s Guide to the Great American Comeback, and its revised 2013 edition, What the (Bleep) Just Happened … Again? Both editions — which have both since been pulled from circulation on Amazon and other sellers following CNN’s report — are expressions of sheer conservative outrage to the new Obama administration, and according to HarperCollins, the only substantive change between the two is that the 2013 version includes a foreword reacting to Obama’s 2012 reelection.

It’s the 2012 edition that CNN examined in its report, and the findings are inarguable: a deliberate, repeated pattern of word-for-word plagiarism. Crowley’s book is patched together from conservative news sources (Fox News, Karl Rove, National Review author Andrew C. McCarthy), straight news sources (the New York Times, Politico, the BBC, the Associated Press), and sources that don’t qualify as either (a podiatrist’s website). At no point does she offer sourcing or credit to any of the people or publications whose words she used.

It’s not the first time Crowley has been accused of plagiarism. Politico has found that multiple passages from her 2000 PhD dissertation at Columbia University appear to be taken word for word from the sources she cites. And in 1999, Slate reported “striking similarities” between a Wall Street Journal article Crowley wrote and a 1988 article by Paul Johnson in the conservative magazine Commentary. By “striking similarities,” Slate clarified, it meant the articles had passages that were word-for-word identical. Crowley claimed never to have read Johnson’s article.

Trump’s team claims that because Crowley was published by HarperCollins, she can’t be a plagiarist. That’s not how it works.

The Trump transition team is standing by both Crowley and the book. In a statement to CNN, it said:

Monica’s exceptional insight and thoughtful work on how to turn this country around is exactly why she will be serving in the Administration. 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.

Let’s set aside for a moment the characteristically Trumpian attempt to politicize a factual question (Crowley either plagiarized or she didn’t, and her political affiliation has no bearing on the question), as well as the inflation of the book’s sales (the industry publication Publisher’s Lunch reports that it sold under 21,000 copies over the course of its lifetime; for comparison, Glenn Beck’s 2008 Christmas book had sold just under 700,000 copies by 2010). More pertinent to this incident is the amount of weight the statement places on HarperCollins’s reputation as a legitimate publisher.

The train of logic goes something like this: HarperCollins is reputable. Monica Crowley published a book with HarperCollins. Therefore, Monica Crowley is unimpeachably reputable, and any evidence that comes to light suggesting she plagiarized is illegitimate.

But this logic does not square with how book publishing traditionally handles plagiarism. Most contracts include a standard clause saying that it’s the author’s responsibility to make sure the book is entirely her own work. The publisher might check the book for libel, but it generally doesn’t check for plagiarism. And if it turns out the book is plagiarized, the contract says it’s the author’s fault, not the publisher’s.

Which is not to say that a publisher will blithely go on selling a book that’s discovered to be plagiarized. Generally, if a book is found to contain plagiarized materials, the publisher will either recall the book and print a new edition with corrections or, if the plagiarism is too extensive to correct and/or the sales are low, quietly allow the book to go out of print. And because the author in question is in breach of contract, the expenses for any recalls and reprintings generally come out of the author’s advance and royalties.

Currently, HarperCollins appears to be splitting the difference between the two traditional strategies. The publisher told CNN that the book is “near the end of its natural sales cycle,” so it plans to recall the copies still in circulation, and won’t reprint more until the book has been revised or sourced.

So from a publisher’s point of view, the usual thinking goes like this: HarperCollins is reputable. HarperCollins used to consider Monica Crowley to be reputable, so it published her book. Now that evidence has come to light that she is not reputable — that she is in fact a plagiarist — it is trying to do damage control, but it reserves the right to sever all ties with her.

But it might be difficult for HarperCollins to figure out how to move forward, in part because the imprint under which Crowley published, Broadside Books, is, according to some reports, now defunct.

Broadside Books was supposed to be a place for intellectual, scholarly conservatism

Broadside Books was a relative latecomer to the conservative trade publishing field. It was established in 2010, eight years after Random House founded its own conservative imprint, Crown Forum, as part of a publishing rush to capitalize on the newly minted pundits of Fox News and their audience.

The founding executive director of Broadside was Adam Bellow, the son of the novelist Saul Bellow. He has impeccable conservative publishing credentials, having cut his teeth at the Free Press, an academic/trade crossover imprint that made its way from Macmillan to Simon & Schuster in the early ’90s, before it was absorbed into Simon & Schuster’s flagship imprint in 2012. At the Free Press, he learned the trade under publisher Erwin Glikes, the neoconservative who pushed the Free Press away from its roots as a publisher of academic scholarship focused on civil liberties and toward a new role as the publisher of books with a markedly conservative bent.

Glikes acquired books like the infamous The Bell Curve, which argued, among other things, that black people are genetically inclined to be less intelligent than white people. Bellow, in his turn, acquired other controversial books like Illiberal Education by the conservative pundit Dinesh D’Souza (when he was starting out and still considered a mainstream conservative, rather than a racist felon) and David Brock’s The Real Anita Hill. Bellow would later write that by publishing these books, he felt he was engaging “in a form of cultural guerrilla warfare.”

Bellow isn’t wrong that he was making controversial choices. Many of the books the Free Press published were far too conservative for any other imprints in the Big Five publishing houses to touch at the time. But the Free Press’s conservatism was, Bellow has argued, not the same as the conservatism of the current major trade presses. Writing at New York magazine, he says:

The incisive counternarrative of twentieth-century liberalism that we constructed in the eighties and nineties devolved into a litany of mindless clichés, and the rise of right-wing media has further corrupted the movement’s integrity. Today the main conservative spokesmen are not serious intellectuals like Irving Kristol and William F. Buckley, whose aim was always to persuade a fair-minded opponent, but abrasive personalities like Ann Coulter and Sean Hannity, whose aim is to whip the Republican base into a froth, and get rich in the process.

Bellow thinks of his conservatism, and the conservatism of the writers he publishes, as a system of thought that’s more intellectually rigorous and grounded than the Fox News–style punditry that’s currently in vogue. He wants to position himself as a publisher of ideas, not a publisher of outraged hot takes.

That position is certainly arguable — for instance, there have been many critiques of The Bell Curve that argue that it’s based on shoddy scholarship — but the Free Press’s list of titles tended to at least gesture at a grounding in academic thought. It wasn’t just Glenn Beck screaming in outrage; there were data sets and bibliographies that you could argue about.

Broadside Books was supposed to be a home for the kind of nuanced, intellectual conservatism that Bellow argued had disappeared from conservative publishing.

“What I intend to do is uphold a standard of intellectual seriousness on the right,” he told the New York Times after Broadside Books’ founding was announced in 2010. “They should be written in a way that they are serious, soberly argued, well researched, and make a respectable case — agree or disagree.”

Broadside Books also appears to be the one of the shortest-lived of the conservative imprints owned by the Big Five publishing houses. Publisher’s Lunch reports that the imprint has “effectively disbanded following editorial director Adam Bellow's departure for St. Martin's last fall.” Its website URL redirects to HarperCollins’s homepage, and its Twitter page has not been updated since 2013. When asked for comment, Bellow told me that Broadside was actively acquiring and publishing up until he left in October 2016, and characterized Broadside’s minimal web presence as the result of its tiny staff. He had no comment as to whether or not Broadside is currently active.

The evidence suggests that it is currently defunct, probably because it seems to have been carried by Bellow. And now one of its books has been accused of rampant plagiarism.

In its short life, Broadside Books abandoned rigor to embrace punditry

Broadside Books positioned itself as the intellectual antidote to the punditry of the other mainstream imprints, but its record is much more mixed.

A book like Crowley’s, What the (Bleep) Just Happened, regardless of whether it was plagiarized (again: it almost definitely was), is not at the level of intellectual rigor for which Bellow has said he was aiming. From its embarrassingly bowdlerized title on, What the (Bleep) Just Happened is not written “to persuade a fair-minded opponent,” as Bellow argued the best political writing should be.

Instead, with its racially charged descriptions of Barack Obama and long passages characterizing Obama’s 2008 election as the date rape of America, it follows squarely in a tradition more akin to the worst themes of The Bell Curve than to William Buckley. Its rhetoric is in line with pundits like Ann Coulter and Sean Hannity, with the aim, as Bellow puts it, “to whip the Republican base into a froth.”

Excerpt from What the (Bleep) Just Happened?
Crowley on Obama.
Broadside Books
Excerpt from What the (Bleep) Just Happened
Crowley on the 2008 election.
Broadside Books

What the (Bleep) Just Happened, for which Bellow is listed as the acquiring editor, is designed as a kind of cathartic outpouring of conservative rage in the face of a liberal president, less a “soberly argued” and “well researched” tome than a primal cry of outrage. The fact that it was most likely plagiarized only adds to the list of its faults.

If Broadside Books truly intended to publish serious conservative thought only to find itself stuck with dog-whistle punditry like What the (Bleep) Just Happened, it certainly lost its way somewhere.

Conservative publishing is all set to embrace a post-truth era

What emerges from this sequence of events is a portrait of a publishing landscape in mid-transformation, one that is unwelcoming to the kind of scholarly, academic conservatism Bellow cut his teeth on. Contemporary conservative publishing requires outrage to succeed. It requires catharsis. It seemingly has no room for citations and philosophy and data sets.

And in that, it falls neatly into place in our “post-truth” public discourse. Conservative publishing is, in a sense, at the cutting edge of the national mood. The current climate has no need for facts or honesty or scholarship. It can just go off of what feels true.

So when Trump’s team said that “any attempt to discredit Monica is nothing more than a politically motivated attack,” they were only telling the truth as they felt it. Just as when Crowley submitted the book to a publisher on the grounds that it was entirely her own original work, she was only telling the truth as she felt it.

And as conservative imprints continue to publish outraged hot takes about how Islam is inherently violent and American racism is a myth, they’re giving a platform to figures like Milo Yiannopoulos to tell the truth as they feel it. That’s apparently how it works now.