Business Maverick, Media

Person of the Year: Time to get it right

Person of the Year: Time to get it right

Since Time magazine instituted it’s “Man of the Year” issue in 1927, there have been many embarrassing moments, not least of which was the moment in 1999 when they finally decided to change the title to “Person of the Year”. What is the history of this accolade and why have the editors of the magazine insisted so often on getting it wrong? By KEVIN BLOOM.

Last year it went to Ben Bernanke, the mild-mannered chairman of the Federal Reserve, who the magazine felt had prevented an economic crisis from becoming an economic catastrophe. The year before it was Barack Obama, the first African-American president of the United States. In 2007 it was Russia’s Vladimir Putin, and in 2006, remarkably (and somewhat evasively), it was “You” – the millions of anonymous contributors to user-generated sites like Wikipedia, Facebook, MySpace, YouTube and Second Life. George W. Bush took it twice, in 2000 and 2004, as did Bill Clinton, in 1992 and 1998. Nelson Mandela never got it on his own (in 1993 he was included with a group of four “peacemakers,” the others being FW de Klerk, Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat), but Ghandi did, in 1930. Hitler took it in 1938, Stalin in 1939 and again in 1942, and Richard Nixon first individually, in 1971, and then with Henry Kissinger, in 1972. The 1995 recipient was Newt Gingrich, speaker of the US House of Representatives, for his role in ending 40 years of Democratic Party majority rule.

While there are clearly some dubious names on the list, the rules would seem to explain why – the Time magazine “Person of the Year” goes to the individual, couple, group, idea, place, or machine that “for better or for worse… has done the most to influence the events of the year.” It’s the “better or worse” part, quite obviously, that does all the talking. Hitler in 1938? Fair enough. Likewise Stalin when he was first an ally to Hitler and than to Churchill and Roosevelt (both of whom also took the honour, in 1940 and 1941 respectively). But George H.W. Bush ahead of Mandela in 1990? The guy who said, “Read my lips: no new taxes,” against the guy who said, “Never, never and never again shall it be that this beautiful land will again experience the oppression of one by another…”?

Of course Mandela said those words during his inaugural address in 1994, when Pope John Paul II was named Person of the Year, but the point stands – sometimes the esteemed editors of Time magazine get it wrong. And 2009, as far as external criticism is concerned, seemed like a particularly bad vintage. Noted the New York Times’s DealBook after the announcement of the last winner was made: “While Time usually names someone whose actions have dominated the news, whether they are positive or negative (Hitler, Stalin and Khomeini have won in the past), Mr. Bernanke’s critics both right and left on Capitol Hill are riled up about how he is being portrayed in the article as somewhat of a savior of the global financial system. ‘If they are picking the person who is very significant or who is the most significant, I would say it is an appropriate choice,’ Representative Ron Paul, the libertarian Republican from Texas, told DealBook regarding Time’s choice. ‘But my reasoning would be different from their reasoning because while he has had a great deal of influence on our economy, it has all been negative, nothing positive.’”

The pressure to choose correctly in 2010 must be immense, not least because Time has taken a hammering in both credibility and circulation over the last while – single-copy sales of the magazine declined around 30 percent in the first half of the year. Which may be why the list of candidates for the cover of the title’s major annual issue is now the subject of an online poll. Sure, the blurb on the poll’s homepage states that the editors “reserve the right to disagree,” but could it be that the disclaimer is just for form’s sake? Time, after all, is a magazine that seriously needs to start pleasing its readers.

At the moment, these readers seem to think that Wikileaks founder Julian Assange should get the nod. In The Daily Maverick’s opinion – which, granted, won’t count for much at Time Warner headquarters – this would be an inspired decision. As we wrote in July, in an article that detailed Assange’s breathtaking revelations of US military cover-ups in Afghanistan: “The simultaneous disclosure in the New York Times, Guardian and Der Speigel on Sunday of over 90,000 incidents of irregular coalition forces activity is easily the largest media event of its kind in almost 40 years. Assange himself called the event ‘the nearest analogue to the Pentagon Papers,’ referring to the release in 1971 of secret military documents that turned public opinion against the Vietnam War, and a host of mainstream commentators appear to agree with him.”

The largest media event of its kind in over 40 years is certainly, according to Time’s own criteria, something that’s had a profound influence on the geopolitical course of 2010. At the time of writing, Assange had garnered 20,411 votes on the online poll, more than 3,000 ahead of second place, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. And there, again, is an inspired choice – even Time seem to know it: “Glenn Beck may have the Tea Party, but Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert have, well, the non–Tea Partyers,” the magazine observes in its write-up. “In fact, whether they like it or not, they are arguably the leaders of a distinct group of informed but not inflamed Americans, those who can really identify with Stewart when he sums up the [Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear]’s guiding philosophy as, ‘I disagree with you, but I’m pretty sure you’re not Hitler.’”

Third place on the poll is currently Lady Gaga, where the newsweekly’s editors may have a tougher time of it, especially when history is taken into account. It was only in 1999 that the magazine changed the accolade’s title from “Man of the Year” to “Person of the Year,” and up until then only Wallis Simpson (1936), Soong-May Ling (with her husband Chiang Kai-Shek in 1937), Queen Elizabeth II (1952), “American Women” (1975), and Corazon Aquino (1986) had won it (the editors deftly adapted the single-issue title for the individuals to “Woman of the Year”). Since 1999, the only women to be recognised were 2002’s “The Whistleblowers” (Cynthia Cooper, who exposed WorldCom; the FBI’s Coleen Rowley; and Sherron Watkins, who exposed Enron) and Melinda Gates (who, along with husband Bill and Bono, was a member of 2005’s “Good Samaritans”). Can the face of Lady Gaga, a woman the magazine blandly notes “has breathed much needed new life into pop music,” appear on 2010’s coveted cover? Not likely.

Of course much rather her than Glenn Beck, who’s in position four. Echoes of the 1995 choice, Newt Gingrich, ring through Time’s bio: “Pundit, proselytizer and paranoid, Fox News Channel’s Glenn Beck isn’t just the king of cable’s 5 p.m. hour anymore. The year 2010 saw Beck pen a politically tinged airport thriller, launch his own online university (featuring such courses as “Presidents You Should Hate”), draw tens of thousands of Tea Party faithful to D.C. for his “Rally to Restore Honor” and help motivate a devoted cadre of Obama haters to return control of the House to the Republicans.”

From there, it gets even more interesting. The Prime Minister of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is on the list for his rebuke of Israel during the raid on the activists’ flotilla. Sarah Palin is in sixth position for putatively being “a personality big and bold enough to rally the disparate wings of the Republican Party under one flag.” Steve Jobs is in seventh position for being, well, Steve Jobs (although the success of the iPad may have something to do with it). “The Unemployed American” is in eighth position for being unemployed. Barack Obama is at position number nine, but it’s almost certain this won’t be his year to win it a second time (see positions four, six and eight). And the Chilean Miners are in tenth for delivering the most heartwarming story of human endurance and ingenuity for at least a decade.

Liu Xiaobo, Mark Zuckerberg, David Cameron, Nancy Pelosi and Hu Jintao feature in positions 11 through 20. In last position, at number 25, with 1731 votes, is Jonathan Franzen – which either means people haven’t read his latest novel Freedom, or have and unlike The Daily Maverick don’t think it’s a masterpiece.

All of which harks back to Time’s original impetus for instituting the Man of the Year in 1927. Apparently, the editors were severely embarrassed at their own oversight in not having Charles Lindbergh on the cover following the aviator’s historic trans-Atlantic flight. Making Lindbergh the first Man of the Year was an attempt to correct the error. But have they simply brought more embarrassment on themselves in the decades since? Your thoughts are welcome. DM

Read more: Poll results: Who will be Time magazine’s 2010 Person of the Year? in Time, “Critics Wail as Bernanke Basks in Praise,” in New York Times, “Wikileaks blows apart US military cover-ups in Afghanistan, draws comparisons to Pentagon Papers” in The Daily Maverick.


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