The year that was wrapped-up

In their year end round-ups, the newsweeklies grope for a way to wrap-up a season of celebrity deaths, weather and other non-stories

Published January 7, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

"This has been a year of big stories," managing editor Walter Isaacson writes in Time magazine's Man of the Year issue (Dec. 29-Jan. 5), and it's an appropriately overblown pronouncement to cap off a year full of them. Big? 1997 was a year of celebrity deaths, weather and space stories -- practically the definition of a slow news season. Big? This was the year we learned to use the words "assassination" and "fashion designer" in the same sentence.

In fact, as the 1997 roundups by America's top newsmagazines all eventually admit, most historic trends held steady through the year -- the impotence of the executive branch (which Howard Fineman discusses in a useful Newsweek piece), the drop in urban crime, the angst of the global work force. With President Clinton puttering around the White House kennel and Saddam Hussein refusing to put out, 1997 was the year the media learned to make do, which it did with a vengeance.

So if "big" means "bloated and unavoidable," Isaacson may have a point. In a sense the media itself was the big story of 1997, expanding through mergers and ventures, online and on cable, into the world's only superpower; without a real war to fight, it bombed Grenadas like the au pair trial and the McCaughey septuplets into the Stone Age. Look at the media's role in not only inflating but even creating many of Time, Newsweek and U.S. News & World Report's highlights -- Ellen's coming out, the TV and Internet smut/censorship battles and a certain traffic mishap overseas that amounted to a WPA-scale public-works program for the cultural and media critics of two continents.

Both Time and Newsweek, however, offer a different explanation for the stridency of their year-end stories: The readers, the newsweeklies suggest, are going a bit sissy on us. Kenneth Auchincloss in Newsweek (Dec. 29-Jan. 5) heralds "The Year of the Tear," citing not only Diana and Louise Woodward but even the Oklahoma City trial as evidence that "people seemed to need a good cry." (How else to explain the bizarre waterworks over the sudden, violent deaths of 168 innocent people?) Earlier, Time's year-in-pictures issue (Dec. 22) declared 1997 "the year emotions ruled," in which we, like the Windsors, were enjoined to show the world we care. Time enlists none other than its professional care-expresser, Roger Rosenblatt, to make the point. Certainly Time well knows the value of the calculated display of sentiment -- it's still cannibalizing a eulogy of Di in one of its "World's Most Interesting Magazine" TV commercials.

Faced with a dearth of unignorable world events -- and perhaps reeling from its daring pick of instant trivia question Dr. David Ho as Man of the Year 1996 -- Time chose to observe the year in technology (always a safe way of garnering hep points) by naming Andrew Grove -- America's boss from hell and a man who, at least, will damn certain be newsworthy 365 days hence -- Man of the Year.

Second-guessing Time at New Year's is fishing with a gill net, I realize -- still, Grove is a surprisingly tone-deaf selection from a magazine that has made an earnest, if not pathbreaking, effort to stay wired with offerings like the Netly News and the massive Pathfinder site. Time is looking at the information era through an industrial-age lens here; lionizing the man who makes the widgets is a quaint choice years after -- to take the most boringly obvious example -- Bill Gates showed that producing the software was key to owning the day. Far more people can identify Sid Caesar than the inventor of the cathode ray, and well they should.

USNWR, meanwhile, distinguished its yearly wrap-up with a list of 16 "silver bullet" policy suggestions for 1998 that proves both the potential and the pitfalls of James Fallows' service-journalism crusade. Ranging from public schools in the workplace (to afford parents more time with kids) to easing the nuclear hair trigger, the package is at least a more thought-provoking way of taking stock than yet another lame yukfest of Marshall Herff Applewhite pictures. But it also shows how condescending the approach can be, citing a litany of positive economic and social statistics to imply that a cynical, whiny public simply doesn't know how good it has things.

Nancy Gibbs' excellent essay in Time's Andy Grove package gives the lie to USNWR's optimism, exploring the paradoxes of a tech-fueled economy that's prosperous on paper yet "scary all the time, not just in cycles," demanding ever-greater commitments of time for its rewards. Hence the piecemeal subcontracting of our personal lives: Jackets to cleaner's, if time/Dinner from Boston Market/Buy memory of last 365 days. ("Oh, and Thompson? As long as you're picking Scotty up from the workplace school, make sure he's finished Xeroxing those annual reports for me.")

Personally I would have scrapped Grove and picked another star of the annus technologia as my Thing of the Year: Sojourner. The cut-rate Mars scooter was 1997's true icon, not because of its name's feel-good PC symbolism (Uncle Sam honors a black woman ex-slave by sending her to a frozen rock to dust boulders until she dies) or its contributions to science, but because it's everything you need to know about the American economy and labor in one solar-powered package. The employer-friendly telecommuter par excellence -- a self-starter able to take the office to the beach as ably as a guilt-ridden mom in an AT&T ad -- Sojourner was praised for its cost-effectiveness, ceaseless work and uncomplaining productivity. And when its battery finally kicked from cold and exhaustion, the story ran on Page 34.

In short, Sojourner was the perfect emblem of an insecure work force -- of the same mostest-with-the-leastest pressures that make the packaged memories of the year-end magazine and TV wrap-ups so attractive to an exhausted public. Like Sojourner, we're constantly being congratulated that we're outdoing the experts' rosiest projections, but we're grinding our Tinkertoy wheels 24/7 to keep up with the orders from Houston. So forget contemplation -- we don't have the friggin' time even to remember anything ourselves these days.

Taken separately, and in moderation, the pieces of the media's two-week pageant of auld lang synergy (or is it four weeks? six? certainly by mid-December I'd seen just about all the photos of Evander Holyfield's bleeding, sweaty charcuterie I could stomach) are fun and a prod to reflection. Taken together, and produced in ever-greater immoderation, they're a poor substitute for it. Notoriously, year-enders are a well-earned (well, earned) breather for stressed-out journalists, and as a writer I'm the last to badmouth that. As a media consumer, though, I get the discomfiting impression that it's also a break for us -- a ritual of prefab stock-taking that frees us to post-Christmas shop over our lunch hours and whose conclusion is the whipcrack that signals a new cycle of labor and consumption. Back to your rock piles, 'droids.

By James Poniewozik

James Poniewozik is a Time magazine columnist on TV and media.

MORE FROM James Poniewozik

Related Topics ------------------------------------------