Last month, Fareed Zakaria, CNN TV host and Time columnist was suspended briefly for plagiarizing a passage by New Yorker writer Jill Lepore. Zakaria apologized for “the terrible mistake” and was reinstated by both CNN and Time. Both he and Lepore had written articles in which they commented on the writings of law professor Adam Winkler. Both cited Winkler, but Zakaria failed to credit Lepore who had published an article about Winkler’s writings first. (For George Jonas’ column about plagiarism and Zakaria’s case, please see the link: ). This clearly is not a case of plagiarism where an author copies someone else’s text and pretends it to be his own work. We don’t know why Zakaria apologized (or why he was suspended in the first place); perhaps it was the easiest and fastest way out of a potentially career- and reputation-damaging situation. However, the case provides an interesting ethical dilemma: Should you apologize for something you have not done?
Let’s first ask: why would you want to apologize for something you have not done? The most likely reason is the desire to overcome a difficult situation quickly. You have been accused of something and you do not want a public scene or a prolonged trial where you need to prove your innocence. The fastest, easiest way to resolve the situation is to apologize publicly and move on. This is the pragmatist’s solution. It is also unethical.
The pragmatist’s solution is unethical first of all because it is not in your self-interest. In the short term, you can avoid prolonging a challenging situation and silence your critics by apologizing for something you have not done. However, by doing so you are violating three crucially important moral principles on which your long-term success depends: rationality, honesty, and justice.
You are violating the principle of rationality by evading reality: the fact that you are innocent. Such an evasion is a hazardous mistake. Achieving goals requires that you focus on facts, not evade them. You cannot run a successful business by evading a new competitor or a new technology that makes your product obsolete. Once you evade one fact, it becomes easier to evade another, and eventually this becomes a pattern of thinking that moves you further and further away from recognizing reality—the basis of all your goals and values, whether success in business or in journalism or anything else.
Another hazardous mistake is to pretend that things are other than they are: you are being dishonest not just to others but to yourself by pretending that you have done something wrong when you have not. Achieving goals requires that you not pretend that things are other than they are; you need to be honest to yourself. No amount of pretending will make your cash flow sufficient or costs competitive when they are not. Pretending that you are guilty when you are not may offer a short-term solution to a challenging situation, but in the long term it harms your reputation, makes it easier for you to become a scapegoat again in the future, and allows others to evade facts as well—all of which hinders your ability to achieve your goals and values.

Appeasing your accusers and apologizing when you are innocent is unjust—to yourself. Injustice is another hindrance to achieving your values, whether you are unjust to yourself or to others. You can claim credit for or plead guilty to something you have not done, attempting to get something you do not deserve. In both cases, your credibility and reputation are at stake and therefore, the achievement of all the rest of your values.
No matter for what you are falsely accused, facts are facts. The only way to achieve values is to adhere to facts and never pretend they are other than they are. You should never succumb to false accusations and apologize—but stand up and defend yourself. The short-term challenges in doing so are worth the long-term gains: your success and happiness.

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Jaana Woiceshyn teaches business ethics and competitive strategy at the Haskayne School of Business, University of Calgary, Canada. She has lectured and conducted seminars on business ethics to undergraduate, MBA and Executive MBA students, and to various corporate audiences for over 20 years both in Canada and abroad. Before earning her Ph.D. from the Wharton School of Business, University of Pennsylvania, she helped turn around a small business in Finland and worked for a consulting firm in Canada. Jaana’s research on technological change and innovation, value creation by business, executive decision-making, and business ethics has been published in various academic and professional journals and books. “How to Be Profitable and Moral” is her first solo-authored book.


  1. I think you using an overly narrow definition of plagiarism. If plagiarism is ONLY defined as “where an author copies someone else’s text and pretends it to be his own work.” then if one simply fails to attribute properly (as Zakaria appears to have done, with no intent to pretend the work is one’s own), one has not plagiarized. But many colleges and universities define plagiarism as presenting the work of another and yet failing to properly attribute that work to the original author irrespective of the intent to misrepresent. Under this definition, Zakaria has plagiarized, and hence an apology is appropriate (albeit for an “innocent” mistake but a mistake nonetheless). Again, the apology is for unintentionally allowing the reader to infer that the idea presented was Zakaria’s own.
    I think on your own (modified Randian?) view, this second definition is a better definition of plagiarism. Why? Because Zakaria’s (unintentional) oversight nonetheless warrants the inference (on the part of the reader) that the idea in question is Zakaria’s rather than LePore’s, and as such Zakaria’s mistake misrepresents “reality.” My understanding of Rand is that such misrepresentations are to be avoided, and hence a definition of plagiarism that “misses” such misrepresentations (as I believe yours does) seems less than ideal.
    I suppose one could argue that one need only apologize for “intentional” misrepresentations, but that seems overly excessive. We might reasonably say to Zakaria “I know you didn’t intend to misrepresent Lepore’s views as your own, and while that gets you off the hook for willful misrepresentation, it is still the case that your mistake caused a misrepresentation to occur. For that, you are accountable.”

  2. Thanks, Mark–I agree with you 100%. I made the mistake of trusting someone else’s analysis of Zakaria’s case (as opposed to reading his, and LePore’s, original articles). It has been shown to me that Zakaria indeed had plagiariazed. But the Zakaria case was merely a springboard for my topic–apologizing for something you have not done–and that argument still stands. (My standpoint is completely Objectivist–not modified.)

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