All right, here’s the question: Should Time magazine select Usama bin Laden as its Person of the Year? Should the face of a terrorist share America’s mailboxes with wishes for peace on earth, good will to man? Should it share America’s newsstands with seasonal reports on faith, hope and charity?
The answer appears at the end of this column. First, some typical journalistic equivocations.
On the one hand, yes. Bin Laden has made a lot of news this year.
On the other hand, no. He is a hypocrite, a coward and a mass murderer.
Back to the first hand: Time’s Person of the Year does not have to be admirable, merely influential. After all, the magazine cited Hitler in 1938, Stalin in 1939 and 1942, and the Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979.
Back to the second hand: Okay, he doesn’t have to be admirable, but if he is a villain, his choice as Person of the Year cannot help but imply a tolerance for his villainy.
First hand: That’s ridiculous.
Second hand: It is not.
First hand: Is, too.
Second hand: Is not.
First: Look, if Time picks bin Laden as its Person of the Year and people who read the magazine think it’s some kind of endorsement of the guy’s actions, that’s their problem.
Second: Actually, it’s the circulation department’s problem. A lot of Americans cancelled their subscriptions to Time in ’38, ’39, ’42 and ’79. The choice of bin Laden for ’01 might drop Time’s numbers into the Arizona Highways category. Or Cross-Stitchers’ Weekly.
First: We can’t worry about that. We’re journalists. We have to do what’s right no matter what the public thinks. If we choose bin Laden as Person of the Year and people stop reading us as a result and Time-Warner/AOL stock drops off the charts and we all get fired, well . . . we’ll just have to tough it out. Maybe send our kids to public schools.
Second: Listen, there’s no doubt that what happened on Sept. 11 was a big story. One of the biggest ever! In fact, we can put the burning towers of the World Trade Center on the cover and call it the Event of the Year. But that doesn’t mean the person responsible for it is the Person of the Year.
First: It doesn’t?
Second: Remember back in the seventies when all those Ford Pintos caught fire in rear-end collisions? I don’t remember anybody’s saying that the guy who designed the car was a candidate for Man of the Year. Do you?
First: But you can’t call attention to an event without calling attention to the person responsible for it.
Second: Then why not call attention to the people who responded to it? How about George Bush for Person of the Year? Or Rudy Giuliani? Or Don Rumsfeld or Colin Powell or John Ashcroft?
The preceding is made up. It is not true, or at least not true in all particulars. But it is, I feel certain, a fairly accurate approximation of conversations that have been going on at Time corporate headquarters for several weeks now. One of the editors starts out with, "On the one hand," another chimes in with, "On the other," and things go back and forth like that from the start of the meeting until the end. The magazine’s boss, Jim Kelly confirms that bin Laden is on a short-list of half a dozen or so finalists for Person of the Year; he does not reveal the names of the others.
So, what should the magazine do? Should Usama bin Laden, terrorist supreme, be Time’s Person of the Year for 2001?
Yes, on one condition. He comes to New York for a photo session. The photographer is a soldier, Special Ops, on special assignment. When bin Laden takes his seat and looks into the camera, someone says, "He’s ready now. Shoot him."
The photographer reacts instinctively.
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 .