Person of the Year Fears

Last year around Thanksgiving, a lot of Americans were upset to learn that Time magazine had included Usama bin Laden on its short list of candidates for "Person of the Year."

Radio talk show hosts were upset; they talked about it. Writers of columns and op-ed pieces were upset; they wrote about it. Other kinds of opinion givers were upset; they opined about it.

The result? This year, Time has learned its lesson. Not to consider only persons of meritorious behavior as "Person of the Year"---that would be the wrong lesson for this culture at this point in its disintegration. No, the lesson Time learned was to consider even more disreputable types for "Person of the Year" and to sit back and revel in the publicity.

Among the candidates for the magazine’s upcoming award: bin Laden again, Saddam Hussein, Yasser Arafat, Palestinian suicide bombers (one imagines the cover photo: the words "Persons of the Year" appearing beneath a picture of twisted metal and fiery columns of smoke), Martha Stewart and Eminem.

Clearly, some of these people are not serious candidates, even for a magazine that has turned its back on the standards of journalism to the extent that Time has. It will not choose Martha Stewart as "Person of the Year," even though the gulf between her public persona and her private behavior is so oceanic in dimension as to make a fascinating story. It will not choose Eminem, even though the transition he is making from semi-literate rap star to semi-literate movie star is the kind of thing that titillates the pseudo-journalistic community. And it will not choose the suicide bombers for any number of reasons; among them is the fact that, to the extent that the wreaking of terror is a qualification for journalistic recognition, these guys are not even the most terrible.

Why, then, include their names on the short list? Why seek deliberately to infuriate those who believe that stock market chicanery, stardom in movies of dubious message, and self-immolation in the cause of the immolation of one’s enemies, should not be rewarded with undue notice? Why, a year after controversy one year, seek to create even more controversy the next?

For the obvious reason, of course: controversy is a synonym for publicity.

In fact, Time has gone even further than to riddle its short list with persons who are short on moral fiber and common decency and even inherent interest. It has made public the names on the list well in advance of the final selection, something it has never done before.

Says Time president Eileen Naughton, "It’s the first time in 75 years that we have extended the debate beyond the hallways of Time magazine." Steve Koepp, Time’s deputy managing editor, said the magazine decided to "let some air in" on the decision-making "because the process itself is so interesting."

No, it’s not, Steve. It’s arbitrary. It’s irrelevant. It’s a sales gimmick, and it has long been a successful one, as the "Person of the Year" issue usually sells about 50 percent more copies than the average issue of Time.

But those who care about the state of the world do not care about one news magazine’s view of one person’s contribution to that state. It is the "Top Forty" or "Best Picture of the Year" mentality come to journalism, and the day is long past when anyone other than the editors of Time should be thinking in such simplistic terms.

Including me.

End of column.

Eric Burns is the host of Fox News Watch which airs Saturdays at 6:30 p.m. ET/3:30 p.m. PT and Sundays at 1:30 a.m. ET/10:30 p.m. PT, 6:30 a.m. ET/3:30 a.m. PT, and 11 p.m. ET/8 p.m. PT .

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