Right-wing publicist and author Craig Shirley doesn't like a new book about Ronald Reagan written by award-winning (and liberal) historian Rick Perlstein. So the conservative publicist has threatened to sue for $25 million in damages and has asked for all copies of the book to be "destroyed," claiming that with Invisible Bridge: The Fall Of Richard Nixon And The Rise of Ronald Reagan, Perlstein's guilty of plagiarism for paraphrasing facts Shirley had previously reported in his own book about Reagan.
But of course, paraphrasing is not the basis for copyright infringement and that's certainly not what constitutes plagiarism.
Reviewing the supposed examples of infringement cited by Shirley's lawyers, Jesse Walker, books editor for the libertarian Reason magazine, concludes:
Facts are not copyrightable, and one pair of similar sentences does not an infringement make. I don't see a dollar's worth of damages here, let alone 25 million.
Instead, the attack on Perlstein seems to be more about partisan politics and the clash over who gets to write the history of Reagan and less to do with allegations of misappropriating work. (Perlstein references Shirley's work in the Invisible Bridge acknowledgements and cites Shirley more than 100 times in the book's online endnotes.) Conservatives have previously showered Perlstein's conservative-movement books in praise, but, "this time Perlstein is writing about Ronald Reagan. Goldwater, Nixon, Reagan--Perlstein has moved from covering a minor saint, to a martyr, to God," as Slate's Dave Weigel explains.
Nonetheless, with an unfortunate assist from the New York Times this week, which helped legitimize the dubious plagiarism allegation via a he-said/he-said accounting of the controversy, Shirley's attention-grabbing accusation has received a wider airing. Indeed, the Times article insists Shirley's dubious claim of plagiarism effectively "casts a shadow over the release" of Invisible Bridge, which is precisely the storyline movement conservatives want to create this week. (Separately, the Times, in a glowing review, recently labeled the book an "epic work.")
The Times' misguided new coverage seemed to draw a rebuke from the paper's own Paul Krugman. Denouncing the Perlstein smear campaign as a "grotesque" "sliming," and dismissing the plagiarism charges as "spurious," Krugman stressed that in cases where professional reputations are attacked via unsubstantiated claims, "this tactic should be punctured by the press, not given momentum with "opinions differ on shape of the planet" reporting."
And that's precisely what the Times dispatch failed to do in this instance.
Others have cast doubt on the Times' news judgment. From Inc. editor, and former media critic, James Ledbetter: "Can't recall ever seeing a plagiarism charge this thin--certainly not in the NYT. August doldrums?"
The Times also skimped on providing crucial context regarding Shirley's partisan stripes. The article did mention in passing that "Mr. Shirley is president and chief executive of Shirley & Banister Public Affairs, which represents conservative clients like Citizens United and Ann Coulter." But that doesn't quite capture the pivotal role Shirley has played for four decades in open partisan warfare.
Shirley famously helped staged Paula Jones' 1994 circus-like press conference. (Shirley "viewed the president as a moral leper.") And since founding his public relations firm, Shirley and his associates have flacked for not only Coulter and Dinesh D'Souza, but for Citizens United, Hobby Lobby, the NRA, Club For Growth, Heritage Foundation, Tea Party Patriots, The Washington Examiner, Andrew Breitbart, William F. Buckley, John Bolton, Sarah Palin and Rick Perry.
From a 2013 Washington Post profile of Shirley and his p.r. partner, Diana Banister [emphasis added]:
"Everything we do is designed to move numbers, shape opinion, advance legislation, put people on book bestseller lists, stop legislation, whatever," says Shirley, sitting next to Banister in the firm's conference room. "It's all designed to advance some type of philosophical goal."
All of this leads to the obvious conclusion that these dubious cries of plagiarism represent a coordinated right-wing attack designed to interfere with Perlstein's book roll-out. How do we know it's coordinated? Media reporters like Politico's Dylan Byers have confirmed it is: "As someone on the receiving end of the Rick Perlstein oppo, I can assure you its pretty aggressive."
Also, Shirley's business partner, Banister, sent out an email over the weekend, obtained by Media Matters, beseeching colleagues to join the "offensive" against Perlstein:
We are considering steps to take and would appreciate you help in our offensive as his book is publishing on Tuesday, August 5 and he has a number of interviews. Anything you can do to jump into the fight would be helpful. We can send suggested tweets or other information as you need.
If a biographer like Shirley was actually concerned about Perlstein's supposed scholarly shortcomings, why would he seek partisan help in a public relations "offensive"? And why would Shirley's team offer to type up prefabbed tweets for allies to send out, presumably bashing Perlstein?
Note that lots of Shirley's allies have already apparently been part of the "offensive," with items appearing in The Weekly Standard, The New York Post, and The Daily Caller, all hyping Shirley's claim about Invisible Bridge plagiarism.
Meanwhile, for a best-selling author himself, Shirley seems to have little understanding of copyright law.
He seems to think that because he wrote a detailed book on a chapter of Reagan's political life (his failed 1976 presidential campaign), every writer who subsequently treads that same ground must credit Shirley because he was there first. But that's not how it works. "Any similarity between facts in non-fiction books - even if first reported by Mr. Shirley - does not support a claim of copyright infringement," wrote attorney Elizabeth McNarama, responding on behalf of Perlstein and his publisher.
Your client's claim rests on the misguided notion that chroniclers of history, like Mr. Shirley, somehow acquire ownership and control over the facts and events they may uncover. This premise collides directly with the most basic principles of copyright law and is contrary to the very fundamentals of historical reporting.
The behind-the-scenes maneuvering suggests Shirley's plagiarism claim doesn't represent a serious pursuit. Instead it's a way for Shirley to draw attention to his own work and to make life difficult for an esteemed liberal writer chronicling a conservative icon.