In 50 years, some history professor should have a semester-long class called "January 10, 2017"
— Catherine Bracy (@cbracy) January 11, 2017
On days like Tuesday, some stories that would otherwise capture attention can fade away into the margins. The hard-working staff here at Spoiler Alerts would like to focus on one of them: Monica Crowley’s rampant plagiarism and What It All Means.
Until recently, Crowley was a garden-variety conservative author, radio talk-show host, columnist, and Fox News Channel contributor. Last month, it was announced that she would be joining the Donald Trump administration’s National Security Council as senior director of strategic communications — the job Ben Rhodes currently holds. Crowley has a doctorate from Columbia in international relations and is clearly comfortable with the news media, so by Trump staffing standards it did not seem all that controversial.
This month, however, CNN and Politico have uncovered quite a few Crowley plagiarism scandals. Namely:
- She plagiarized portions of her PhD dissertation;
- She plagiarized numerous columns she wrote for the Washington Times
- She plagiarized a lot of her 2012 book, leading HarperCollins to yank it from the shelves.
This all comes on top of some long-standing plagiarism charges against Crowley regarding a 1998 Wall Street Journal op-ed.
The Trump transition team has stood behind Crowley, arguing that “any attempt to discredit Monica is nothing more than a politically motivated attack that seeks to distract from the real issues facing this country.” That statement was made before a few of these revelations and before HarperCollins pulled the book, however.
So here’s the question to ask: Does any of this matter anymore?
Some pundits have argued that, as infractions go, plagiarism is overrated. And as the Christian Science Monitor’s Ben Rosen points out, plagiarism is not always a job-killing accusation. Joe Biden got caught plagiarizing Neil Kinnock during his 1988 presidential run, and he’s now the vice president of the United States. Fareed Zakaria admitted to plagiarism and was accused of a lot more plagiarism, but he still anchors his own CNN talk show and writes for The Washington Post.
Also, in a strange way, Crowley’s long track record of plagiarism makes her better-suited for the NSC job. Authorship matters in the private sector but not so much in the public sector. When I worked for the government, one of the biggest hassles was getting language for press releases or public communiques approved by higher-ups. The first trick one learns as a bureaucrat is to cut and paste pre-approved language (because it was already in a public document) and modify it as little as possible to make it quicker to clear. Crowley is clearly very good at this task already.
That said, the differences in her case are telling. There aren’t just a few isolated instances, but a whole truckload of them. It’s not just plagiarism in a column — when it can be difficult to attribute every single thing — but books and dissertations.
More important, unlike in the other cases mentioned above, Crowley has never admitted to any wrongdoing. She has not commented on any of the charges that have emerged this week. In response to the old allegations, she acknowledged the similarities in the prose but denied any intent. At least Biden paid a political price for his infractions; Zakaria was suspended for a time after his admissions.
Trump is holding a news conference Wednesday. I think we can all guess the main line of questioning. But I hope someone asks him what kind of signal his administration is sending if it pushes forward with Crowley’s hire. As a professor at a school that trains the nation’s future diplomats, I am supposed to be vigilant about students plagiarizing the work of others without attribution. As Middlebury professor Alison Stanger noted:
My students are what Trump supporters might call the “special snowflakes” of an elite institution of higher learning, but Monica Crowley is slated for foreign policy work in the real world. While the Trump camp would maintain these two worlds have little in common, they are mistaken. Honesty and integrity are as important for national security as they are in the quest for knowledge. If Crowley is to serve in a Trump administration, she, like my students, must promise to maintain the highest ethical standards.
If the Trump administration brushes aside Crowley’s plagiarism, what should I tell my students? What other ethics and norms will fall by the wayside over the next four years?