Monday, February 24, 2014

On Time Magazine's Pope of the Year Pick

In 1927, Time magazine launched its annual "Man of the Year" feature, renamed "Person of the Year" in 1999 to avoid the use of sexist language in the new millennium. Whether man, woman, or person, the feature was by and large, a pseudo-event, to use a term coined by Daniel Boorstin to refer to a news item that is not about any real event that took place in the world, but rather something created specifically for the medium, to provide it with content, such as an interview, a publicity stunt, a press release, and a press conference. Certainly, a large part of the motivation for creating this feature was to sell magazines, and it comes out at a slow news time, right after the Christmas holidays.

The first person selected was Charles Lindbergh, in recognition of his history-making solo trans-Atlantic flight:

Interestingly enough, Boorstin in his classic work in the field of media ecology, The Image, discusses Lindbergh as the primary example of how heroes have been transformed into celebrities, which he referred to as human pseudo-events.

Subsequent years included the likes of Mahatma Gandhi and Franklin Roosevelt, and the first Woman of the Year was selected as early as 1936, and it was Wallis Simpson, the American divorcée that King Edward VIII of England fell in love with and abdicated the throne in order to marry. 

The main criterion for selection was that it should be the individual who had the greatest impact on current events over the past year. As a news magazine, Time was naturally interested in the person who made the most news.  But the most newsworthy individual is not the same thing as the most worthy individual, in any kind of moral or ethical sense. As Sidney Hook has pointed out, much of history is made by individuals who might be termed evil, and/or insane, and it follows that Adolph Hitler was Man of the Year in 1938, and Josef Stalin was chosen for the following year, and again in 1942. 

The annual pick was not always a single individual. In 1950, with the outbreak of the Korean War, it was "The American Fighting-Man" that made the cover:

In 1956, with the unsuccessful uprising against Soviet domination in Hungary, the choice was "The Hungarian Freedom Fighter":

And in 1960, it was "U.S. Scientists":

Along with the typical types of political leaders such as Soviet Premier Nikita Krushchev in 1957, French Prime Minister Charles de Gaulle in 1958, and American Presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1959 and John F. Kennedy in 1961, the first Roman Catholic Pope to grace the cover of Time was John XXIII in 1962:

And the first African-American selected was Martin Luther King the following year:

In recognition of the role that youth culture was playing during the sixties, in 1966 baby boomers and their immediate predecessors were given the nod collectively, under the heading of "The Inheritor" (referring to the younger generation of people 25 and under):

So, I don't know about you, but I guess I could say that I was selected for Time magazine's "Person of the Year" in a way, sort of, kinda. And perhaps as a way of evening up the score, 1969 featured "The Middle Americans" who were otherwise known as "The Silent Majority" (as opposed to us noisy boomers who made up a sizable minority of the population):

Although those middle Americans were thought to be a bunch of squares, their cover image made them out to be pretty cool and groovy. And note the reference to "Man and Woman of the Year" on the cover. After Richard Nixon made the cover alone in 1971, and with Henry Kissinger the next year, 1975 was the year of "The American Women":

While choosing villains rather than heroes was a common practice, including King Faisal of Saudi Arabia in 1974 on account of the Arab oil embargo and consequent gasoline shortage in the US, and Deng Xioping in 1978 after taking control of Communist China by overthrowing Mao's successor, Hua Guofeng, a major turning point came in 1979 with the selection of Ayatollah Khomeini:

The trauma of the Iranian Hostage Crisis was too much, it seems, or television had so much eroded the readership of news magazines, and perhaps also the sensibilities of their readers (known to broadcasters as, "the audience"), that this decision cost Time a significant number of subscribers. And that affected their future choices, as never again would they venture into such controversial territory. Apart from the usual type of political leader, the 80s were noteworthy for two offbeat selections. In 1982, it was "The Computer" (aka the microcomputer, home computer, or personal computer) that was selected as "Machine of the Year":

And in 1988 it was "The Endangered Earth" that was identified as "Planet of the Year":

Hey Mars, someday, if you play your cards right, it might just be your turn to make the cover. That is, if Venus doesn't beat you to it. Anyway, 1993 was the year of "The Peacemakers":

And a pope was chosen for the second time in 1994, this time John Paul II:

New media received some recognition, arguably beginning in 1991 with CNN founder Ted Turner, and yeah, I know cable television isn't considered new media exactly, but neither is it a traditional form of broadcasting. Anyway, in 1997 it was Andrew Grove, Chairman and CEO of Intel, in 1999 it was Jeffrey P. Bezos, founder and CEO of, and more recently Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg got the nod in 2010. 

A few more off-beat choices appeared in between, including "The Whistleblowers" in 2002:

And representing our involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq, harkening back to 1950, there was "The American Soldier" in 2003:

And, wait a minute, you might be saying, what about 2001, and the very reason our soldiers were sent off to fight in Afghanistan and Iraq? Well, the obvious pick for that year would have been Osama bin Laden, as the individual who made the greatest impact on the news in 2001, by far. But commercial considerations won out over more objective evaluation based on the criteria Time uses to make its selections. In lieu of the most newsworthy individual, you might guess that they chose to feature the heroes of 9/11, by which I mean, to honor the firefighters, police, and rescue workers, at the World Trade Center and Pentagon, as well as the passengers on United Flight 93. But instead they went with the single "hero" who served as the spokesperson for the nation in the immediate aftermath of the terrorist attack, New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani:

Anyway, for 2005, the selection was the odd combination of Bill and Melinda Gates, for philanthropy rather than Microsoft computer software, together with U2 lead singer Bono, under the heading of, "The Good Samaritans":

The following year Time made its oddest choice to date:

So, I guess I could say I made the "Person of the Year" twice now. And yes, it's another computer and new media connection. And yes, perhaps it was a bit premature, at least insofar as the claim that we are in control of the "Information Age" is concerned. I kind of think its more the reverse, and I know many would argue that the control lies with large organizations such as the government and the corporations. And anyway, I'm not "You"! I'm only "me" after all...  But some of those "You" people made it to the cover in 2011, as "The Protestor":

I neglected to mention that Haile Selassie I, Emperor of Ethiopia, was the selection back in 1935, and  I did mention that Martin Luther King was chosen in 1963. There wasn't another African-American featured until 2008 with Barack Obama, who also was selected for a second time (and term) in 2012. And this brings us to 2013, and the third leader of the Roman Catholic Church to be picked, Pope Francis:

The fact that Pope Francis, who is also the first Jesuit pope ever in the history of the order, was selected was obviously a big deal for my home institution, Fordham University, New York's Jesuit university, and so it became the subject of a posting over on Fordham Notes, back on December 11, 2011. The post consisted of quotes from four faculty members. Three of them were from the Theology Department, as you might expect, and one of them was from our Department of Communication and Media Studies, namely yours truly, as you might have guessed.

You can read all four comments and get the whole context over on the Fordham blog post,  Fordham Faculty Weigh in on Time’s ‘Person of the Year’. I'll just share my own quote here on my little old Blog Time Passing:

Time's choice sometimes involves a conflict between their criterion of choosing the individual who had the greatest impact on world events and the potential negative response of their readership. In 1979 they chose the Ayatollah Khomeini and lost subscribers and sales. In 2001 they decided against the obvious choice, Osama bin Laden, knowing how negative the reaction would be. The editors must truly be in heaven to have before them such a clear-cut candidate who is not only a very positive figure, but an exceptionally inspirational one, not to mention someone who transcends nationality and even religious affiliation. 

 And I do mean that last bit, as Pope Francis has been received in very positive ways in Jewish circles as well as among many Catholics. And as for me, it's not very likely that I'll ever be pope, but there's always a chance I may make it to the "Person of the Year" another time or two. I'll keep you posted...

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