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Another Honor: Faux Event of the Year

December 28, 2001|Howard Rosenberg

Talk about a national crisis.

What if Americans faced dueling anthropoids of the year? Imagine the confusion, the crippling dilemma if Newsweek horned in on Time and anointed President Bush its Human of the Year for 2001.

Would that invalidate Time's loudly tooted choice of New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani as Person of the Year to succeed 2000 winner Bush?

Would newscasters and the rest of the media praise Newsweek? Or would they endorse Time, whose founder, Henry Luce, created this pedestal to recognize "the person or persons who most affected the news of our lives, for good or ill, this year"?

Resolving this would require another contest to select Magazine of the Year. But what if Reader's Digest should win that honor over Time and Newsweek? Or Car and Driver? Or Martha Stewart's Living, whose Person of the Year naturally would be Martha Stewart?

America and its media love lists, from the Gallup Poll's "most admired" crowd to eagle-eye Mr. Blackwell annually turning up his nose at celebrities in shmattes. Award worship is why so many are given out in televised spectaculars and why the statuette business thrives even in a troubled economy.

As the author of many Top 10 lists, I know my own hands are soiled in this area. Even when hollow or predictable, however, these affirmations of achievement are fun to snipe at and are comforting in the way they erase ambiguity, wash away that gray and color life in black and white. No heavy thinking needed. Thumbs up or thumbs down. End of story.

Yes, but....

Time's Person of the Year is the faux news event of the year, making it uniquely specious in our culture.

Over-covering it sends absolutely the wrong message by making media the focus of news, in this case Time annually creating and distributing its own story about itself with the generosity of others.

Once again, a review of the media's role is in order: They're on Earth to deliver the message, not to make themselves the message.

As a corollary, some Time editors reaching consensus on a Person of the Year is opinion, not news. Far from being a journalistic exercise, it's a commercial one costumed as news.

But it's always treated as news, never more than in 2001 with TV leading the way in affirming how easily the public can be manipulated by media drawing Americans into a debate about a wee footnote titled Person of the Year, one they are assured is important.

In fact, it's a clever marketing tool to promote the magazine and sell ads. Yet it's annually blown so absurdly out of proportion that the magazine's pick is now monitored almost like a papal succession, as if crowds had gathered outside Time's Rockefeller Center headquarters to await smoke rising from the chimney.

Time's corporate sibling, CNN, has been the giddiest, even hitting the street one day to get responses from pedestrians on the magazine's choice and making Giuliani's selection a topic on its blabby daytime show "Talkback Live." Host Daryn Kagan's question to the public: "Is this a good choice or did Time magazine cop out on this one?"

As for Time giving thought to Osama bin Laden, a man in the studio audience was aghast: "We are gonna consider this guy for Man of the Year?" How did "we" get into this? It was them, a few self-appointed sages at a magazine who speak for no one but themselves.

Smart guy, Henry Luce. He knew how to make a commercial resemble a news story.

Newspapers, including this one, buy into the charade. The Los Angeles Times gave Person of the Year a front-page tease Monday and played it prominently on Page 4. Times editorial cartoonist Michael Ramirez weighed in Tuesday, faulting Time for picking Giuliani over Bush. Like ... who cares?

TV newscasts and talk radio have been the worst, however.

They began playing Time's tune two weeks before last Sunday's announcement, sending sweeping arpeggios across the airwaves in response to rumors that Time might name Bin Laden.

Bin Laden? The globe trembled, the skies darkened, thundered and fell in. The horror, the hand-wringing, the whining: Please, oh please, Time, don't pick Bin Laden. Pick Rudy or George so we can sleep well at night.

Get a grip.

As if Time saying Bin Laden was most influential--or naming Giuliani or Santa Claus, for that matter--would make it a reality. As if Time were Moses delivering its proclamation on a stone tablet. As if, also, America's vast majority that doesn't read or care about Time should wait breathlessly to learn how a handful of the magazine's journalists voted in a plebiscite around the water cooler that meant absolutely nothing.

No wonder so many newscasters find Person of the Year irresistible, self-glorification often heading their industry's agenda.

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