My friend Monica Crowley was the subject of a major hit job by CNN a few weeks back. She is a serious scholar, but she was portrayed as a serial plagiarist who never had an original idea in her head. The emotional toll of the uproar caused her to withdraw from her appointment by President Trump to be the senior director of communications at the National Security Council.
It is the country’s loss. Over the last two decades, Monica has been one of the most effective commentators on the national scene regarding the geopolitical challenges confronting the United States, and in particular the phenomenon of jihadist terror catalyzed by sharia-supremacist ideology — radical Islam. As much as anyone I’ve encountered, she has been invaluable: communicating the threats, debating them, and defending sensible national-security measures.
All writers make mistakes. But Monica’s have been blown wildly out of proportion, to the point of smear. The well-regarded copyright attorney Lynn Chu has done a careful study of the plagiarism allegations and posted her findings on Facebook. Two things leap out.
The first is context. Readers were presented with a series of passages in which Monica is shown to have relied on the work of other writers (including yours truly) in two of her most notable written works: a bestselling 2012 book called What the (Bleep) Just Happened?: The Happy Warrior’s Guide to the Great American Comeback, and her 17-year-old Columbia University Ph.D. dissertation, “Clearer than Truth”: Determining and Preserving Grand Strategy. The Evolution of American Policy Toward the People’s Republic of China Under Truman and Nixon. What was not well explained to readers is that the cited passages constitute a bare fraction of what Ms. Chu correctly describes as “long, heavily researched, synthetic work[s]” — 361 pages in the case of the book, 461 pages in the dissertation, both heavily footnoted.
Secondly, about those footnotes: According to Ms. Chu, CNN itemized 37 passages out of the 461 dissertation pages as improperly mined from the work of others without sourcing; but 26 of these items were “straightforwardly false” because, in order to make Monica look like a plagiarist, CNN omitted her footnotes. As Chu writes:
Ms. Crowley’s paraphrases were correctly sourced in her footnotes. But in most of these 26, CNN had omitted her footnote references. CNN hid from readers that her footnotes gave proper credit to the source. Readers were disabled from being allowed to see or infer that sources were in footnotes. It seemed to selectively delete footnote references (though some were left in) — perhaps so that readers would assume no visible reference mark meant no footnote existed.
If this happened, it is shameful.
With respect to the book, of the 61 passages mined out of the 361 pages, Chu found 57 of them to be “unwarranted accusations” of plagiarism, stacked to make matters look much worse than was actually the case. She elaborates:
The match often seemed computer-generated from shared proper names and generic phrases, or news and anecdotes repeated by aggregators and editorialists. This type of material is generally considered fair use and/or public domain. As a result, this CNN list was misleadingly long, possibly a calculated attempt to condemn her with manufactured, but false, bulk.
To be sure, Chu found passages that should have been sourced. From a legal standpoint, these were woefully insufficient — both in number and scope — to support an allegation of plagiarism. Of course, writers understandably want credit for their ideas, and for their words even if the ideas they are expressing are not unique; thus, they tend hold other writers to a higher standard than the law does — which is as it should be.
That said, though, Monica’s missteps are overwhelmed by the valuable work she does. As Ms. Chu concluded:
I found CNN’s splashy “plagiarism” accusation to be ill-supported — a heavily exaggerated, political hit job. Instead, after reading texts side by side with footnotes, I came away impressed by the very high quality and care taken by Ms. Crowley in her writing, scholarship and research overall. Many parallels in fact read on the page as rather different even if certain content or phrases were the same, and they were largely short, fragmentary, and routine.
Historical research inevitably draws heavily on the work of other scholars. Dissertations exist to synthesize. The relatively few examples of unsourced copying found was in my opinion de minimus, should just be corrected, and not allowed to besmirch Ms. Crowley’s reputation.
Monica Crowley is a strong voice on national security and a great patriot. It is important to recognize, moreover, that this was never really about her. It’s the president’s scalp that they want. Along the way, they’ll take what they can get. I’m sorry to see my friend get caught in the crossfire.