Thinking on Time’s Person of the Year
By Tom Jones
The Poynter Institute
Let’s get something straight.
Time magazine’s Person of the Year is just an honorary title. Other than publicity, the “winner” doesn’t actually get anything. Those who don’t “win” don’t miss out on some big trophy or cash prize.
It’s just something for fun — like a list of the top 10 movies or TV shows of the year.
It’s also the perfect topic for debate, and there’s plenty of that following Time’s announcement that Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg is its “Person of the Year.” At 16, she is the youngest person to be recognized.
Time editor-in-chief Edward Felsenthal wrote, “Thunberg has become the biggest voice on the biggest issue facing the planet — and the avatar of a broader generational shift in our culture that is playing out everywhere from the campuses of Hong Kong to the halls of Congress in Washington.”
The person of the year is supposed to go to “the person or persons who most affected the news and our lives, for good or ill, and embodied what was important about the year, for better or for worse.”
You might look at the choice of Thunberg as a flawed, but safe selection. Not because she isn’t deserving, but because there are others who feel more important and newsworthy at this very moment.
Specifically: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, President Donald Trump and most of all, someone known simply by a vague name — The Whistleblower.
For just the fourth time in the history of our country, a U.S. president is undergoing impeachment proceedings. That has dominated the news for months and will end up being, by far, the biggest news story of the year.
At first glance, it might feel as if choosing Thunberg is Time’s way of staying out of the fierce political fray. The impeachment is splitting the country in two and choosing anyone directly involved likely will draw ire from at least half of Time’s audience.
Choose Pelosi or the whistleblower and it looks like Time is favoring the president’s removal from office. Choose Trump and it looks like the magazine is siding with the president. By choosing Thunberg, Time can avoid the political mess and potential backlash.
When we look back years from now, might it seem ridiculous that the impeachment process had nothing to do with the person Time chose as the most newsworthy person of 2019?
Perhaps, although you could easily argue that the president of the United States, whoever that is, will always be the most newsworthy person of the year. For the record, Time’s readers chose Hong Kong protesters in an online poll as their 2019 Person of the Year.
I see all these points, but I will make the argument that choosing someone like Thunberg is long overdue. When we look back years from now, it would have been preposterous to NOT choose someone who is a leading voice in the most important issue facing our planet.
Detractors ask what Thunberg has actually accomplished. The Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin wrote, “I find it preposterous to assert that Thunberg had a unique, transformative impact on public opinion in a way no other person has.”
Yet Thunberg’s defiant, how-dare-you speech to world leaders at the UN Climate Action Summit was a game-changer, the most relevant and far-reaching speech on climate in recent memory.
It revitalized and greatly publicized a topic that needed to be revitalized and publicized. Thunberg’s age and influence on others her age make her the perfect figure to lead future generations who will be most impacted by the cause she is speaking out about.
Thunberg shared her honor with climate activists from around the globe. Her selection is a boost for them, as well.
So go ahead and have your debates about whether Thunberg was the right choice. Whether you agree or not, it’s notable that we are talking about Thunberg. Most of all, we’re talking about her cause.
Hmm, maybe the title of Time Person of the Year means something after all.