The most recent dustup between the White House and the press has offered some unexpected fun—namely, an excuse to lay bare Time magazine’s “Person of the Year” tradition as the long-running piece of bunkum that it is.
On Nov. 24, President Trump tweeted that Time called to say he would “PROBABLY” [sic] be their Person of the Year for 2017—but that the magazine would need an interview and a “major” photo shoot. “I said probably is no good and took a pass,” the president ostensibly responded. “Thanks anyway!” The magazine in turn called Trump a liar: “The President is incorrect... Time does not comment on our choice until publication, which is December 6.”
Oh, let’s face it. The real story here isn’t who’s telling the truth. Rather, it’s that Person of the Year, once a portentous signifier of national and even international import, is now little more than a running joke. The speciousness of Time’s threadbare ritual is properly spotlighted on the occasion of its 90th anniversary.
“Man of the Year,” as this Timeenterprise (a term coined by Wolcott Gibbs) was originally called, began as an embarrassed afterthought. In 1927, the editors settled on Charles Lindbergh, the first man to fly solo across the Atlantic, as their inaugural candidate “because they regretted that Time had not printed more on the man and his feat at the time.” So wrote Robert T. Elson in his official Time Inc. corporate history.
Yet the spurious idea took hold, gripping the public imagination when Time’s red-bordered presence was still a cultural force in living rooms and libraries. Soon enough, the criteria for this year-end front-cover designation crystallized. Currently, the Man (or Woman, or Collective, or Thing, or Concept, or Whatever) of the Year is defined as the one who (or that) “has had the most influence over the news in the last 12 months.”
It presumes to be essentially amoral, this notion that the title is not an honorific but an acknowledgment of a bona fide newsmaker. Thus Adolf Hitler unwittingly seized the brass ring in 1938. “Nothing so terrified the world as the ruthless, methodical, Nazi-directed events which during late summer and early autumn threatened a world war over Czechoslovakia,” Time explained. Similarly, the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini got the nod in 1979 because “he gave the 20th century world a frightening lesson in the shattering power of irrationality, of the ease with which terrorism can be adopted as government policy.”
Fair enough. Fair enough, too, were such noncontroversial no-brainers as Winston Churchill, ready to save Western civilization in 1940; Pope John XXIII for wrenching the Catholic Church into the 20th century with the Second Vatican Council in 1962; and Ronald Reagan for his eponymous political revolution in 1980.
But almost from the start, there was more than a touch of caprice and just plain showmanship in the editors’ choices. Why, for instance, did Wallis Simpson finish first in 1936? Officially, the editors said, she was “the most-talked-about, written-about, headlined and interest-compelling person in the world.” But perhaps—oh, just perhaps—she afforded the novel distinction of the first Woman of the Year. The selection 12 months later of Chiang Kai-shek and Soong Mei-ling as “Man & Wife of the Year” almost certainly had more to do with Time publisher Henry Luce’s fascination with that couple than their role in the Sino-Japanese War.
(Luce, incidentally, was no clairvoyant. Shortly after Harry Truman sacked Douglas MacArthur in the spring of 1951, wrote Alan Brinkley in The Publisher, Luce “began lobbying his editors to choose MacArthur as Time’s next Man of the Year.” Luce crowed, a tad prematurely, “He won the Korean War.” The editors instead went for Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh.)
More recently, Time seems to be less concerned with merit than with drawing attention to the gimmick itself. David A. Graham captured this cynical self-importance nicely in TheAtlantic.com in 2012, when Barack Obama (surprise!) emerged victorious:
“Time manages to get everyone to treat its warmed-over sweepstakes as a major news event, year after year. In doing so, it converts the press into a gigantic public-relations arm of Time Inc. … The process is immaculately staged. First, there was the goofy, perpetually gamed online nomination poll. Then came the hours of buzz Tuesday afternoon—artificially induced excitement propagated via Twitter hashtag. And today, there are the dozens of ‘news’ stories. It’s not just Time and its corporate siblings at CNN, nor is [it] just media rags reporting it: Here are CBS, The New York Times, and ABC, all dutifully rushing to report the ‘news’… Whoever devised this plan to get the magazine free publicity from its competitors was a genius.”
In any event, as Time has stretched to maintain interest in its shopworn shtick, the results have lately been embarrassing. “Bizarre” is what the New York Daily News retroactively called the 1982 selection of “The Computer” as “Machine of the Year.” There was widespread head scratching over “Endangered Earth” as “Planet of the Year” in 1988, and for good reason. By all rights, Terra not-so-firma should have won back in 1970, when Earth Day debuted and environmentalism was suddenly a screaming front-page story.
Probably no recent winner, fittingly declared as newsmagazines began gasping their last, generated more open-mouthed disbelief than “You” in 2006. “Yes, you,” ran the omniscient tagline. “You control the Information Age. Welcome to your world.” The cover highlight, you may remember, was that chintzy Mylar mirror, set in a computer screen. The idea was to convey a literal reflection of the subject. But when readers picked up the flimsy construct, they got a distorted, warped view—and therefore a perfect metaphor for the Time selection process. The idea was “so hokey,” wrote Frank Rich in The New York Times, “that Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert merely had to display it on camera to score laughs.”
Now, magazines thrive and, indeed, survive, on the unexpected. No one would keep buying U.S. News & World Reports’ “Best Colleges” rankings issue if Harvard topped the list without fail. So one can justify Time’s eyebrow-raising but plausible choices of “U.S. Scientists” in 1960 and “American Women” in 1975.
And occasionally, Time makes a clever call that serves both the God of current events and the Caesar of circulation. This was true in 1991, when Ted Turner was elevated for CNN’s defining role in covering the first Gulf War, the abortive Russian coup, and other major breaking events. (Not that Time has any monopoly on wisdom. Even before the coup collapsed, a close friend predicted that Turner would win. Dummy me, I kept my money on either Saddam Hussein or Boris Yeltsin.)
But in taking the long view of Person of the Year, it’s hard not to wince at the inordinate number of absurdities and outright turkeys, generally undertaken for hype’s sake. Just try to find someone who ever took seriously the election of Peter Ueberroth for his management of the 1984 Olympics—as opposed to George Orwell, who was on all lips as his dystopian vision was endlessly argued. And sure, Time’s editors had good reason to sidestep Osama bin Laden after Sept. 11 on the grounds of obviousness and even national trauma. But how Rudy Giuliani in particular won over radical Islam in general remains inexplicable.
As for David Ho (1996), Andrew Grove (1997), “The Whistleblowers” (2002), “The Good Samaritans” (2005), “The Ebola Fighters” (2014), etc. ... well, yeah, right.
Who or what irrelevancy Time’s editorial collective will breathlessly announce on Dec. 6 is a mystery until then. One thing is for sure: Forget Trump. He was the shoo-in last year, and only once has a winner been featured consecutively. That was Richard Nixon in 1971 and 1972; even then the Trickster had to share the latter coup with Henry Kissinger.
So Person of the Year for 2017 is anyone’s guess. The current mania about sexual harassment could yield anyone from Harvey Weinstein to the fair sex in general. It’s likelier, though, that the House of Luce will try to outfox popular opinion.
Therefore, in deference to “The Middle American” (1969), maybe we’ll see the anointing of “The American Public” and its present collective fury. Or, as a Trump placeholder, we could get stuck with Steve Bannon, who embodies the political and media poison that has lately defined us. “The Mass Murderer,” with a timely sidebar about the newly late Charles Manson, might work. In that homicidal vein, the AR-15 would reasonably make it as “Weapon of the Year.” And hey, don’t put it past Time to go with Trump after all, if only to point up their first consecutive winner in 45 years.
But really, who cares? The best pronouncement on this increasingly flaccid Time phenomenon probably took place during those fin-de-December roundups on “The McLaughlin Group,” when John McLaughlin would ask for predictions. Invariably, Jack Germond—the only panelist who refused to take either the show or himself seriously—would growl, “I’m not gonna endorse that crummy magazine.”
OK, Time is not a crummy magazine. But Person of the Year has devolved into a crummy anachronism. Tell you what: Come Dec. 6, let’s see a cover story on Person of the Year itself—and crown it “Nonentity of the Year.” The timing couldn’t be better. As the Trump hokum was breaking last weekend, the Meredith Corporation snapped up all of Time Inc. in a deal valued at $2.8 billion. That a mediocre Midwest media outfit has swallowed a once almighty, once-sophisticated Eastern communications empire just now is altogether appropriate. The conventional wisdom is that Time is on its way out. And if its present pointlessness is any indication, so may it be with Person of the Year.