Time's Person of the Year punt

Choosing Giuliani instead of bin Laden was a clear cave-in to the magazine's business priorities. But the rest of the U.S. press isn't setting a much better example.

Published January 2, 2002 6:52PM (EST)

"The classic definition of Time's Person of the Year is the person who most affected the events of the year, for better or for worse."

That's how Time managing editor Jim Kelly explained the criteria while making the media rounds in the days before the magazine's Person of the Year (POY) announcement in late December. The magazine had received lots of attention because it confirmed beforehand that terrorist Osama bin Laden was on the short list for 2001's POY. The mere suggestion had created a media dust-up that the magazine did its best to sustain, as industry observers contemplated the negative fall-out of a bin Laden "win."

Why was bin Laden up for POY? Because he likely had a direct hand in killing 3,000 American civilians in an unprecedented terrorist attack that's inflicted an estimate $100 billion worth of damage to the U.S. economy. Because the war on terrorism bin Laden spurred has brought together a truly global alliance and signaled the end of a Central Asian government. His actions forced Congress to pass sweeping law enforcement legislation in a matter of weeks, brought U.S. air travel in to a halt for almost seven days and closed down trading on the New York Stock Exchange for roughly the same amount of time.

Going by Time's own "classic definition," there was no debate. There haven't been more than a handful of people in the last half-century who have so dramatically affected the news in a given year the way bin Laden did in 2001. Yet as most readers know by now, Time gave the honor to New York City Major Rudy Giuliani -- a good guy who reacted to events, instead of a bad guy who set them in motion.

A marketing gimmick dreamed up by Time founder Henry Luce three-quarters of a century ago, the magazine's annual designation has always been more about selling magazines than documenting greatness. But this year's notice, and Time's obvious punt, is noteworthy for what it says about the media culture and how it's become anchored around marketing, publicity and the fear of being on the wrong side of a big story. Time's decision highlighted the worst traits of major-league journalism today, where synergy can trump integrity.

After all, who flogged the bin Laden-might-be-POY story for weeks? Time's sister company, CNN, now run by Time's former managing editor, Walter Isaacson. CNN covered the pseudo story on "Reliable Sources" (Dec. 2), "Crossfire" (Dec. 4), "Newsnight" (Dec. 14), CNNfn's "Money Morning" (Dec. 17), "Q & A" (Dec. 18), "Reliable Sources" again (Dec. 22), "Sunday Morning" (Dec. 23), "CNN Late Edition with Wolf Blitzer" (Dec. 23), "Talkback Live" (Dec. 24), "Wolf Blitzer Reports" (Dec. 24) and "Mornings With Paula Zahn" (Dec. 24).

Throughout the buildup, the story line put forward by Time was that managing editor Kelly would weigh the pros and cons and then he alone would decide the POY. ''It's the single biggest decision of my tenure," Kelly told USA Today.

Yet the notion that Kelly might actually have marched into the office of Norm Pearlstine, Time Inc. editor-in-chief, and announced he'd decided to name bin Laden POY, and to hell with any possible subscriber or advertiser revolt, is laughable.

Here are the most obvious reasons bin Laden was never really in the running to be named POY: 23 percent and 17 percent. That's how far down Time's ad pages and ad revenues fell in 2001, according to the Media Industry Newsletter. Hammered by the ongoing media recession, the idea that Time was going to risk losing even a single ad over the POY choice, let alone alienate readers, is wildly naove. So going into late December there couldn't have been three senior people at Time magazine who thought bin Laden would actually be POY -- yet the magazine sent out representatives to play up the dilemma angle on TV to drum up interest for newsstand sales. (The POY issue is usually one of Time's biggest sellers.)

Days before the announcement, USA Today wrote that Time was in "the public relations Quandary of the Year" over the bin Laden question. The paper had it backwards: Time was enjoying the public relations bonanza of the year, albeit a transparent and cynical one. Time editors went on TV, furrowed their brows and insisted they were up late at night trying to settle the thorny POY question. After all, they hastened to note, there was precedent for famous bad guys getting the nod: Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin and the Ayatollah Khomeini had all won the title. (Back then they were known as Men of the Year.)

But trying to compare Time's place in the media world today even to its standing in 1979, when the magazine tapped Khomeini, is pure folly. Back then Time was the crown jewel of an independently owned publishing empire, and one that helped set the news agenda each week. Today, thanks to the information revolution, the news mag is left to round up the week's conventional wisdoms. More importantly, Time's a relatively small cog in a multi-billion-dollar, bottom-line-obsessed entertainment juggernaut know as AOL Time Warner, where the magazine is no doubt viewed by more than a few AOL execs as a convenient subscription premium for AOL users, and little more.

Time didn't do itself any favors, either, when it sent its lieutenants out to explain its final decision. Kelly told CBS he'd become convinced Giuliani was Time's man after going back, like a coach studying game tapes, and watching video clips of Giuliani's performance on Sept. 11, where he was able to decipher a winning formula.

Eric Pooley, who wrote Time's 9,000-word word ode to Giuliani, came up with a unique, if utterly convenient, definition of news when he told CNN the mayor was a natural POY choice because the reaction to Sept. 11 was a "bigger and more surprising story" than the unprovoked terrorist attacks that killed 3,000 Americans.

Plus, said Pooley, bin Laden wasn't a "large enough character" to be POY -- "This is about greatness." So it turns out Time's POY isn't about who affected the news, it's about "greatness" and larger-than-life characters. You know, like Peter Ueberroth, who won the Time honor for running a profitable Los Angeles Olympics.

To be fair, why should Time editors have ventured out on a limb to strike a controversial, post-Sept. 11 chord, when so few of their competitors bother? Network and cable television news executives have been playing a very conservative brand of ball lately.

That was on full display last week when the latest video tape from Osama bin Laden was unearthed. Despite being the subject of perhaps the most intense global manhunt since Allied forces tracked Hitler's movements during the closing days of World War II, bin Laden's sudden and surprising TV appearance was treated timidly by newscasters. (It appears paranoia about bin Laden video tapes is not limited to the Arab street; asked for a comment when word of the latest bin Laden tape broke, one Pentagon spokesman insisted, "I don't know if it's real.")

Aware that the Bush administration doesn't want bin Laden's self-produced videos to receive much airplay, network and cable outlets played only snippets and often focused discussion around how bin Laden looked, not what he said. As one NBC flak explained to AP, the network was merely following the policy of restraint it adopted based on White House concerns.

That restraint, of course, had been set aside when an earlier home video of bin Laden was released with the blessings of the Pentagon. Then, networks broke into regular programming to air the tape, while cable news channels cleared the decks in order to loop the video almost non-stop.

But what made the home video must-see TV? On it, bin Laden was seen having a conversation he's no doubt had dozens of times since Sept. 11: bragging about the bloody hijackings and being an all-around bad guy. But is that news? (The tape was widely described by American talking heads as shocking -- a term that might have applied only if a terrorist like bin Laden expressed regret for his murderous ways.)

It seems the only media players who have not been completely on board for the war on terrorism are a handful of quasi-liberal columnists and commentators who were unduly skeptical about the military campaign against Afghanistan. The Wall Street Journal recently put them on notice.

In a rare public accounting, the paper, in a page-one news piece on Dec. 24, critiqued the pundits by name. By mining a few skeptical quotes from the New York Times' Maureen Dowd and National Public Radio's Daniel Schorr, the story attempted to create the impression that the mainstream press, still viewing military conflicts through the prism of Vietnam, had been wildly pessimistic about the war on terrorism's bombing phase. (Vietnam? Most of the reporters and pundits on duty today were raised on Reagan and North, not Nixon and Westmoreland.) "The American media were significantly off-target on Afghanistan," wrote the Journal's Matthew Rose.

There's nothing wrong with holding pundits accountable. But it's telling that the Journal chose this issue to enter the media-criticism fray. Where was the paper in the closing days of the 2000 election when every pundit and D.C. talking head was busy burying Al Gore -- only to watch him nearly run the table on toss-up states and out-poll George Bush by half a million votes? Clearly, the American media were significantly off-target on that story.

According to the Wall Street Journal, the press skepticism towards the war in Afghanistan (or its "errors in judgment") "are one reason U.S. news organizations, almost along among American institutions, have seen their reputations slide since Sept. 11." Rose, citing a late November study by the Pew Research Center, suggested the American public penalized the press for being too skeptical about the bombing campaign.

Actually, what the Nov. 28 Pew Research Center report found was that the media continued to receive extraordinarily high marks for its war coverage, skepticism and all. "The public now holds more favorable opinions of the press's professionalism, morality, patriotism and compassion," according to the survey.

For instance, 46 percent of Americans think the media usually get the facts right. That's the highest rating Pew ever registered for that question.

The percentage of those polled who rated the press' performance as good or excellent stood at 77 percent, well above average. And the percentage who think news organizations stand up for American values catapulted from 43 percent in early Sept., to 69 percent in late November, shattering the previous high of 53 percent set 15 years ago.

As for the notion that the public was punishing the press for being too skeptical, Pew found just the opposite. Its survey reported a clear majority wants the wartime press to dig hard for information rather than simply rely on military officials. A majority also believes that press scrutiny of the military keeps the nation prepared.

According to Pew, "The public is not comfortable with the media substituting propaganda for news, nor does it prefer the press to be a lap dog rather than a watchdog."

Perhaps it's time for the press to start listening to the public.

By Eric Boehlert

Eric Boehlert, a former senior writer for Salon, is the author of "Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush."

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Osama Bin Laden Rudy Giuliani