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The Best, Greatest Story Ever About Lists

Pop culture: Buzz's 100 coolest, People's 50 most beautiful, the Fortune 500. The lists magazines love running and people love reading make for good arguments--and sales.

June 20, 1996|IRENE LACHER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It's a good bet that biologist E.O. Wilson, traditionalist William Bennett and rocker Courtney Love don't make each other's party lists. But there's one dance card where they all reign supreme: Time magazine's recent list of the country's 25 most influential people.

So maybe Love reigns a little less supreme than some, judging from the talk radio hoo-ha over her bid for that particular throne.

"Here's our rationale," says Time Managing Editor Walter Isaacson, who sired the magazine's first annual list. "Nowadays if you're looking for someone who articulates a somewhat angry but very interesting feminist attitude, you tend to look to rock music. You look to rock, and you get Courtney Love."

Wanna fight about it? Great. That's just what the architects of "100 Best" and "25 Greatest" magazine lists have in mind. Indeed, a little controversy can be good for the soul--as well as newsstand sales, because everybody loves a list, say the list makers. Just look at how ubiquitous they are--there's Money magazine's 300 best places to live, Newsweek's up-and-coming over-class 100, U.S. News & World Report's 20 hottest careers, People's 50 most beautiful people. The list goes on and on, natch.

"I think their arbitrariness is part of what makes them appealing," says Mark Harris, a senior editor of list-happy Entertainment Weekly. "Who are we to say who the hundred most powerful people in entertainment are? But any kind of ranked list in particular gives people a wonderful jumping-off point for an argument."

Some lists are more argument-worthy than others. After all, how could one debate the granddaddy ranking of them all, the Fortune 500, which has been sizing up America's biggest corporations for 40 years?

On the other hand, who would dare to quantify cool? Buzz magazine, which only half-jokingly lists L.A.'s 100 coolest people each fall.

"We used it to celebrate people who normally wouldn't get that kind of attention," says Buzz Editor in Chief Allan Mayer. "The response was so phenomenal in terms of readers and advertisers they demanded we bring it back." The magazine is running its third list in October.

OK, don't fight about it. Even Buzz doesn't really think there's an objective universe of countable cool people out there. "That this is the definitive list of cool people, that's just silly," Mayer says. "We give our readers more credit. We bill it as the completely authoritative list. It's with a heavy dollop of irony, not sarcasm."

It's considered authoritative enough, however, for other publications to reprint it--and not just around the country.

"The Fleet Street papers love it," Mayer says. "Last year, TV stations in Tokyo were calling us up. It's because Los Angeles is viewed as the world capital of this sort of thing, that the hippest people in L.A. are somehow the hippest people in the world. But it's harmless fun."

It's also a publicity windfall for publications angling for their piece of the besieged pie of media consumers.

*

If some lists are more quantifiable than others, some are more reportable than others. When Entertainment Weekly does its ranking of the 100 most powerful people in Hollywood, its reporters beat the industry's bushes for nominations. But when it comes to such intangibles as the 50 greatest directors of all time, a somewhat different methodology is used.

"It's a lot of debate around the table, and a lot of thrown coffee cups, and a lot of heated arguments and rough drafts with names crossed off," Harris says.

Not surprisingly, that method can yield more fireworks from readers.

The best-directors issue "generated more mail than any single story we ever covered," Harris said. "And a hell of a lot of the mail was, how could you not put William Wyler on that list? And a number of people complained that Jerry Lewis was on the list."

Jerry Lewis?

"Any time we get that kind of volume or intensity of response, we think that's great news."

*

Not everyone thinks the proliferation of lists is great news. Washington Post media writer Howard Kurtz calls it a "cheap journalistic gimmick. The more subjective the list, the more it's merely an excuse to run a lot of pictures of celebrities."

Annoying perhaps, but more insidious, Kurtz says, are financial magazines' lists of the 20 hottest stocks and the 10 greatest mutual funds.

"It's their equivalent of the swimsuit issue," Kurtz says. "I regard that as slightly more serious than the beautiful-people issue because people might spend money on them."

Media watcher Bryce Nelson believes lists pose another problem: The pop packaging of information can dumb it down, striking at the heart of a serious publication's credibility. Nelson, chairman of USC's graduate journalism program, chastised Time magazine for joining the scramble for public attention.

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