A "Person of the Year" retrospective, and TIME's 2006 cop-out

Posted: Dec 23, 2006 12:17 AM
A "Person of the Year" retrospective, and TIME's 2006 cop-out

For eight decades now, the final TIME Magazine cover of each year has featured, the “individual or group of individuals who have had the biggest effect on the year's news.” The tradition began in 1927 with Charles Lindbergh, after he became the first person to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean, and has continued to the present, with both positive and negative newsmakers earning the distinction of being TIME’s “Man of the Year,” or “Person of the Year,” as it was renamed in 1999 for the purpose of gender neutrality (although four women had been featured under the previous title).

Throughout that period of time, the list of honorees has been long, distinguished, and not without controversy. In 1930, in only the fourth year of the budding tradition, the first non-white, non-American was featured in Mahatma Gandhi. The first female, American divorcee Wallis Simpson, was named Man of the Year in 1936, when Britain’s King Edward VIII abdicated his throne in order to marry her.

The World War II era saw each of the giants of the age featured, including Adolf Hitler (1938) and Josef Stalin (twice, in 1939 and in 1942), both controversial choices to say the least.

In 1949, Winston Churchill was named not only Man of the Year, but Man of the Half-Century by TIME, and in 1950, against the backdrop of the recently-ended Second World War, and in the face of the intensifying conflict in Korea, “The American Fighting-Man” was featured as the first abstract honoree.

A decade later, the distinction of Man of the Year went to “the most important occupational group of the world today,” American Scientists. In 1966, TIME followed John F. Kennedy, Pope John XXIII, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Lyndon Johnson with the inclusive “man – and woman – of 25 and under,” calling the Baby Boomers a “new kind of generation,” one that was “cushioned by unprecedented affluence and the welfare state,” was “granted an ever-lengthening adolescence and life-span,” and that “no longer [felt] the cold pressures of hunger and mortality.”

In 1969, the award was somewhat condescendingly bestowed upon “Middle Americans,” who “cherish[ed], apprehensively, a system of values that they [saw] assaulted and mocked everywhere – everywhere except in Richard Nixon's Washington,” and who “felt ignored while angry minorities dominated the headlines and the Government's domestic action.”

While not necessarily choosing every year to name one or two individuals who, for better or worse, had “the biggest effect on the year’s news,” the choices made by TIME generally made sense, by and large, and were well explained and defended, even in the face of the possible controversy involved in featuring such people as Hitler, Stalin, Nikita Khrushchev (1957), and the Ayatollah Khomeini (1979). In 1975, American Women were named Man of the Year, and, in 1982, the computer became the first non-human abstract to be featured. This was followed up in 1988 with the featuring of "The Endangered Earth" on the cover, due to the fact that, "spurred by poverty, population growth, ill-advised policies and simple greed, humanity is at war with the plants and animals that share its planet."

Ronald Reagan earned the distinction of being TIME’s Man of the Year twice, in 1980 and 1983. Interestingly, though, the “Man of the Decade,” awarded in 1989, went to Reagan’s Soviet counterpart, Mikhail Gorbachev (who was also Man of the Year in 1987), whom TIME credited with “setting loose the forces” that brought about the end of the Soviet Union – while offering a backhanded slap at Ronald Reagan, who was not mentioned once in the 1989 Man of the Year issue, despite the fact that it was his policies and willingness to play hardball, both fiscally and diplomatically, with the Russian Bear that pushed the crumbling empire over the edge and into ruin.

The 1990s saw people both inside and outside the world of politics featured, from George Bush (1990) and Newt Gingrich (1995) to David Ho (1996), who advanced the treatment of HIV patients, Intel founder Andy Grove (1997), and Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos (1999). The Man from Hope, William Jefferson Clinton, was twice featured during that decade, once in 1992 after his improbable run to the presidency, and again in 1998, although his second appearance, in the middle of the Lewinsky scandal, included the sharing of the award with Special Prosecutor Kenneth Starr.

The events of this decade have led to some difficult decisions on the part of TIME Magazine as to who should be named Person of the Year. The post-election fiasco of 2000 made the choice of George W. Bush a natural one (although it would not have been wrong to have the President share the distinction with that year’s electoral runner-up, Al Gore).

In the aftermath of September 11, 2001, though, TIME was faced with the difficult question of whether to name a local hero the Person of the Year, or to go with the year’s actual top newsmaker. In the end, New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani made the year’s final cover, and news fixture Osama bin Laden was not even mentioned once in the issue.

The quick and efficient success in major combat operations in Iraq, combined with the previous driving out of Afghanistan of the Taliban, earned the American Soldier the Person of the Year distinction for the second time in 2003, and George W. Bush’s reelection in 2004 – this time by a wide margin – put him on the cover for the second time in five years.

In 2006, TIME was faced with a challenge similar to that of 2001 – a year in which the majority of the top newsmakers, from Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, to Kim Jong-Il, to Muqtada al-Sadr, to the late Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, had become so due to their overwhelmingly anti-Western words and (often brutal) actions. Other options, like Donald Rumsfeld, who this past week became the longest-serving Secretary of Defense in American History, were distasteful to the anti-war, anti-administration news magazine, whereas big electoral winners this year, like incoming Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, are similarly distasteful to the American public as a whole.

In an age of increasing new media influences, and declining subscription numbers of newspapers and weekly news magazines, the specter of such an unpopular Person of the Year – and the justification required – proved to be too unwelcome an option for TIME to pull the figurative trigger on. So, rather than feature the actual person (or people) with the “biggest effect on the year’s news,” TIME decided to take the easiest road possible: they named everybody Person of the Year.

As managing editor Richard Stengel said, with a striking amount of honesty, “If you choose an individual, you have to justify how that person affected millions of people...But if you choose millions of people, you don't have to justify it to anyone.”

Stengel went on to say that, had an individual been chosen, that person would have been Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has made news all year with his viciously anti-American rhetoric, his repeated calls for Israel to be “wiped off the map,” and, most recently, his hosting of a conference to debate the veracity of the Holocaust (and thus Israel’s justification for existence) – a conference which featured independent minds like former Ku Klux Klan imperial wizard David Duke.

"It just felt to me a little off selecting him," said Stengel.So, with the new media influences on this year’s news making so readily observable – from Ned Lamont’s blogger-backed nomination for US Senate in Connecticut, to the whistle-blowing on photoshopped pictures from the Israeli-Hezbollah conflict, to the free public access to video archives made possible by sites like YouTube, to the expansion of online communities like Facebook and MySpace – TIME decided to bestow the Person of the Year honor for 2006 on the “citizens of the new digital democracy” – namely, every one of us.

The choice makes sense on a superficial level. However, with real, individual newsmakers abounding, the decision to go with a Person of the Year for the primary reason that it “doesn’t have to be justified to anyone” is, at its heart, little more than a cop-out.

Of course, having an admitted cop-out Man of the Year isn't all bad. After all, it does offer a riposte to any guff you may be taking from a boss, a teacher, or a colleague. So, as always, feel free to comment or to send emails to me regarding this piece, or anything else – but please make sure to address me as “TIME Magazine’s Person of the Year 2006.”

Thanks for that, at least, TIME.