Taking Chances

The point of this annual issue isn’t to celebrate power, influence, or even, necessarily, success. It’s to identify people who are taking a substantial risk for a big idea.

By James Bennet

When The Atlantic’s editors assembled our first group of Brave Thinkers a year ago, among those we singled out was Jeff Zucker, the president and chief executive officer of NBC Universal. In a brief item (we didn’t think it was that big a deal), we noted that he was taking a “huge gamble” by moving Jay Leno into prime time, putting a relatively low-budget chat show up against scripted dramas. “It could completely change the dynamics of network television,” we wrote. “Or it could bomb.”

From all the evenings you haven’t spent chortling through The Jay Leno Show, you know which outcome came to pass. Zucker took a media beating that grew only more savage as his attempt to correct his mistake caused Conan O’Brien to quit the network. The media-gossip site Gawker called him a failure, an idiot, and, more memorably, a “peacock-killer.” He reported receiving death threats. “I got pilloried on The Tonight Show and Saturday Night Live when I was in charge,” Fred Silverman, a former NBC programming chief, told the New York Daily News. “But I was treated like Christ compared to Jeff Zucker.”

So, all in all, we feel pretty good about our choice. The point of this annual issue isn’t to celebrate power, influence, or even, necessarily, success. It’s to identify people who are taking a substantial risk—to their reputations, their careers, even their lives—for a big idea. We are trying to alert you to people who are confronting the received wisdom in their field, like John Ioannidis, the doctor profiled in this issue who is assaulting the pseudoscience behind respected medical studies; or betting everything on their own vision of what is possible, like Lonnie Johnson, a scientifically multi-dextrous throwback to the era of Ben Franklin who is pursuing his own radical theory of how to turn solar energy into electricity.

Hardest for us to find, as we have searched for candidates over the course of the year, is another category of Brave Thinker—the person who has been willing to declare themselves wrong about a consequential question and change course. This year, we identified just one, Diane Ravitch, who reversed field to criticize school-reform measures (like charter schools) that she once championed, angering some of her old allies. I happen to think she was largely right the first time, but what we found compelling about her change of heart was her willingness to reexamine her basic assumptions.

One of our goals in creating this issue each year is to remind ourselves of our aspirations for the magazine, whose founders set out to crusade against slavery years before abolition became a mainstream proposition. Francis Underwood, the young lawyer who drew together James Russell Lowell, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and others to start The Atlantic, once wrote that the magazine was “intended, first of all, to be entertaining.” But, he went on, every issue also contained a political article, “and the public understood and felt that this was the point of the ploughshare that was to break up the old fields.” Through the decades, from the days of Darwin to the run-up to the Iraq War, The Atlantic has been at its best when it has pushed forward new and often initially unpopular thinking in science, culture, society, and national policy. We’ve blown it more than once, of course. I hope you’ll let us know whom we included in this issue that we shouldn’t have, or whom we left out. We reserve the right to admit we got it wrong.

I’d like to call your attention to one more story: Brian Mockenhaupt’s narrative of the endless day of a handful of soldiers struggling to fulfill their mission and stay alive in Afghanistan. It is an implicit rebuke to the hacks—journalists and politicians alike—who treat policy making in Washington as a silly partisan game. And it is a searing portrayal of what bravery looks like.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2010/11/taking-chances/308257/