Everyone Should Ignore Time’s Person of the Year

The magazine’s venerable feature is a smart idea, but there’s no excuse for the media pretending it’s news and turning themselves into free PR for Time Inc.


There’s plenty to be said for year-end wrap-ups and lists. They are a great way to recap all the biggest stories of the year, remind us what mattered over the previous 12 months, and start initial revisions on what Philip Graham memorably called “the first rough draft of history.” We even do them here at The Atlantic.

One thing these lists are not, however, is news. By definition, they are simply a rehash.

The worst offender in treating them otherwise is without question Time’s Person of the Year, which was announced today. Look, more power to the House that Luce Built: Time manages to get everyone to treat its warmed-over sweepstakes as a major news event, year after year. In doing so, it converts the press into a gigantic public-relations arm of Time Inc. (This is how it’s done, Tina Brown.)

The process is immaculately staged. First, there was the goofy, perpetually gamed online nomination poll. Then came the hours of buzz Tuesday afternoon—artificially induced excitement propagated via Twitter hashtag. And today, there are the dozens of “news” stories. It’s not just Time and its corporate siblings at CNN, nor is it just media rags reporting it: Here are CBS, The New York Times, and ABC, all dutifully rushing to report the “news.” (And yes, here is The Atlantic Wires write-up.) Whoever devised this plan to get the magazine free publicity from its competitors was a genius. (The feature has been running since 1927.)

The not-news critique doesn’t even touch on the utter banality of the contest’s results in almost any given year—but especially this year. It’s impossible to think of a less interesting, more predictable choice than Barack Obama, who also won the award four years ago. Perhaps there’s someone who wasn’t aware that Obama’s reelection was the big story of the year, and perhaps he will pick up this issue during a routine dentist's office visit in a few weeks and raise his eyebrows. But I doubt it. What’s more, the Person of the Year has been the winning presidential candidate in five of the last six election years, Conor Sen notes.

Obama’s selection isn’t just boring. It’s a big missed opportunity. Just look at the other finalists—especially Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani teen blogger shot in the head by the Taliban for her advocacy for women’s rights. As manufactured as the hoopla is, it could at least have been directed toward a worthy cause, one that faded far too quickly from the headlines after her October attack, overwhelmed by (yep) the presidential election and other news.

Another finalist was Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, who could shape the direction of the Middle East in indelible ways. A third was Fabiola Gianotti, who, as a lead researcher on the Higgs Boson, contributed to a huge leap in scientific understanding. (There’s not much defense for their fellow finalist Tim Cook, the Apple CEO, who’s hardly lacking for adulatory magazine covers and hasn’t had that much of a banner year anyway.)

Obama Mark II is the latest in a pattern of lackluster choices. Is anyone out there not sick of people ironically listing “Time Person of the Year, 2006” in Twitter bios, a reference to the gimmicky selection of “You” that year? Didn’t think so. The 2011 Person of the Year, another cop-out, was “The Protestor,” though that at least pointed to a major news trend across the world that year.

And here’s an appalling fact: Though the name was changed from “Man of the Year” to “Person of the Year” in 1999, not since 1987 has Time featured an individual woman as the Person of the Year, as BuzzFeed notes. That year it was Corazon Aquino, who led the push to topple Filipino dictator Ferdinand Marcos and became president of the Philippines. (In 2002, the magazine choose three women for a cover on “The Whistleblowers” at Worldcom, the FBI, and Enron.)

But these flaws are in a way beside the point. It wouldn’t matter whether the magazine had a worthy, unexpected choice every December and maintained a salubrious diversity. It still wouldn't make the hubbub justified. Year-end wrap-ups simply aren’t news.

All that said, Michael Scherer’s feature on the president is a great read, and this gallery of photos by White House photographer Pete Souza, some of them unseen, is wonderful. Both, in fact, are so good that they stand on their own just fine—with no need for the rest of the media to puff up the preposterous Person of the Year gimmick.