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.