Jellyfish of the year

Posted: Dec 20, 2006 12:01 AM
Jellyfish of the year

This year's award for editorial cowardice goes to Time magazine. In a crowded field of competitors, Time stood out for its sausage-spined decision to name everybody the Person of the Year. That's right. Time's person of the year is ... "You."

In grade school, whenever a student was caught eating candy, the teacher would ask, "Did you bring enough for everybody?" Time carried this logic through to its absurd conclusion: If everybody can't be Person of the Year, then no one can. "In the future," Andy Warhol once predicted, "everyone will be famous for 15 minutes." Well, start your clocks, people.

But, you may ask, what is so cowardly about Time's decision? And since you are a Person of the Year, how can I refuse to answer a question from such an august personage as yourself?

The intellectual flubber of Time's decision is manifest on many levels. Though some argue that Time was patting the American people on the head for voting the way they wanted in the last election, the more obvious explanation is that Time's editors didn't want to offend anybody. "If you choose an individual, you have to justify how that person affected millions of people," Richard Stengel, Time's newly vintaged managing editor, told the Associated Press. "But if you choose millions of people, you don't have to justify it to anyone." Well, isn't that convenient. Heaven forbid a news editor do something controversial that would have to be defended on the merits. Spare the delicate flowers such hardship!

Stengel added that if Time had to choose a real person to be Person of the Year, it would likely have been Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad "It just felt to me a little off selecting him," Stengel said.

One might wonder if it felt "a little off" to past Time editors who awarded the Man of the Year award to Hitler in 1938 or to Stalin - twice, once in 1939 and again in 1942 - or to the Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979.

But the answer is that it didn't bother the old editors, not really. Because Time's Man of the Year award was originally conceived as something other than the Mother of All Puff Pieces. Time founder Henry Luce swam against the stream of Marxist determinism which held that history unfolded according to cold, impersonal forces. He believed individuals - i.e. great men and women - matter. He said the original award should go to the person "who most affected the news or our lives, for good or ill, this year." That was the point of picking Charles Lindbergh as the first Man of the Year - because he, and he alone, seemed to be ushering in a New Age. Hitler was MOY in 1938 because he might have been ushering in a Dark Age. You are Person of the Year because the editors of Time want to live in a Feel-Good Age where everyone is empowered (hence Time's rationalizations about the people-power of the Internet).

Of course, Time has punted many times before. For example, in 1988, beating the fierce competition, Earth was named "Planet of the Year." No doubt that choice sounded very clever in the editorial board meeting.

Time's 2001 decision, naming Rudy Giuliani person of the year, was even more telling. This was a true profile-in-cowardice moment. There was no intellectually defensible standard for suggesting that the able mayor affected the news or our lives more than Osama bin Laden, who at the time seemed at least to be the Gavrilo Princip of the 21st century. (Princip was the fellow who launched World War I, which in turn launched World War II and the Cold War.)

The only reason not to give bin Laden the title Person of the Year - other than a purely commercial concern about newsstand sales - is that being Person of the Year has become a compliment. Sure, I suppose groups like the Shriners or the Knights of Columbus have always had their Persons of the Year, and they always meant it in a good way. Nonetheless, readers in 1938 and 1979 understood that Hitler and Khomeini weren't being honored as humanitarians.

What's changed is that these days celebrity is always a boon. There was a time when infamy mattered, when disrepute had teeth. But infamy has been purged from the lexicon. Now, any publicity is good publicity. Just ask Paris Hilton. Time's sister publication, People magazine, didn't start the trend, but it did accelerate it wildly. And it seems that People's values have seeped into the water supply over at Time, so much so that Time would rather name everyone, and therefore no one, the Person of the Year.