Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Total Irrelevance of "Person of the Year"

This morning Time magazine announced that their "Person of the Year" is Ben Bernanke, for "saving the American economy." Let's set aside the very thorny issue of whether or not Bernanke actually accomplished this, whether the economy is "saved" or if the Fed's actions were even efficacious. The real issue is: who the hell cares about who Time's editors think is "the single person who, for better or worse, has most influenced events in the preceding year?" Reason's Jesse Walker sums it up nicely in a 2002 post on Time's selection that year, "The Whistleblowers":

My hat goes off to Time—not for its selection, but for once more inspiring so many people to discuss the world's single vaguest annual award as though it were meaningful and important. Even People's yearly announcement of the Sexiest Man Alive—isn't it funny how the sexiest man alive always turns out to be famous already? What are the odds of that?—has the advantage of being restricted to one qualification (sexiness); if an aggrieved fan wants to dispute the pick, she at least knows what she's disputing. To this day, I'm not sure how one outqualifies someone else to be Man of the Year. The magazine's definition—"the single person who, for better or worse, has most influenced events in the preceding year"—isn't helpful, since the mag regularly ignores the "single person" bit in practice and doesn't seem very interested in the admittedly impossible task of measuring "influence," either.

Nonetheless, each December people behave as though there is some platonic ideal Man of the Year out there, and that the disinterested scientists at Time somehow misidentified it. Last year the rap on the editors was that they only picked Rudy Giuliani because they were too scared to select Osama bin Laden. (Their stated rationale was that he was "not a larger-than-life figure with broad historical sweep," but "a garden-variety terrorist whose evil plan succeeded beyond his highest hopes.") This time the complaint is that they've picked three people whom hardly anyone's heard of and who didn't make much of a difference in the big picture anyway. (They are nonetheless, one presumes, larger-than-life figures with broad historical sweep.) Next year, when Time honors Whitney Houston or Carrot Top, the naysayers will doubtless swoop in once more.

Even better is Radly Balko's reponse to Time's choice of "You" as the "Person of the Year" back in 2006. When asked who he would choose as "Person of the Year," Balko replied:
If Time magazine picked "you," as its Person of the Year, then everyone alive is "person of the year," except, ironically enough, for the staff of Time magazine. Even the two dozen or so marketing professionals the magazine just laid off can take solace from the fact that now that they're no longer with the company, from Time's perspective, they're no longer "us," but "you," meaning that they too now inherit the title of "Person of the Year." So I'm going with the staff of Time for my "Person of the Year," for two reasons: One, it seems silly to leave them out. And two, their gimmicky stunt gave the rest of us an extra line on our resumes.