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Time Is Misleading Us About Its Person of the Year

Whoops, did you misunderstand what the magazine is trying to recognize? Join the club.

Colin Kaepernick, Hillary Clinton, Kim Jong Un, and Donald Trump in front of the Time magazine Time/Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Early Wednesday morning, Time is almost certainly going to make a lot of people upset. The magazine will dominate headlines and trend on Twitter. The president will probably tweet about it, and that’ll probably trend, too.

This is because Wednesday marks the annual unveiling of the magazine’s Person of the Year, and for the 10 billionth time in the years that Time has been doing this, some noisy faction of the world will get outraged that the honors went to [unworthy and/or controversial party] instead of [obviously superior candidate]. And then, as has been done on the occasion in almost every past year, Time will meekly attempt to explain to the aggrieved that its award is not meant as an endorsement or a round of applause, but rather as a simple nod to the person or entity that had the greatest influence on the year in question. Nothing more, nothing less.

That this fussy distinction—we meant this only as the editorial equivalent of a year-end word cloud!—will do nothing to tamp down either the misunderstanding of intent or the inevitable furor over the selection is something Time knows very well by now, because it is something that the magazine labors to explain and re-explain and re-re-explain year after year. And yet the powers that be continue to identify a Time Person of the Year every December, disingenuously pushing a dubious crown that the outlet knows its readers will misinterpret.

It’s fine if Time wants to put on a big annual show for whomever it deems to have been particularly newsy in a given year: The magazine covers news and wants to sell its news-covering, so it makes sense that it would point out what specific news-covering was the biggest deal. But if that’s the intent of the Person of the Year award, then it must be renamed. It could be Time’s Most Impactful Person of the Year, perhaps, or Time’s Newsmaker of the Year, or Time’s Great SEO Caper. The demarcation “Person of the Year”—which until 1999 was branded the Man or Woman of the Year—is confusing and, worse than that, dishonest. A more accurate title might be less exciting, but Time, you knobbly old dinosaur, you can do better.

There are certainly worthy candidates for any news- or influence-related honor in this year’s pool. Time’s 2017 short list names a handful of political figures and heads of state (special counsel Robert Mueller, North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un, Chinese President Xi Jinping, Saudi Crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, and, of course, Donald J. Trump), former 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, Amazon–Washington Post–Whole Foods impresario Jeff Bezos, Wonder Woman director Patty Jenkins, and two larger groups (the beneficiaries of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program and the collective voices of the #MeToo movement). My money, for whatever it’s worth, is on the winner being the #MeToo movement, which is well on its way to reshaping at least some corners of Hollywood, media, and politics—seemingly solid grounds for what Time claims to want to honor. But you can make the case for less positive contributors: Kim Jong Un has managed to raise a real specter of nuclear war, and Trump has begun to redefine U.S. democracy, the place of far-right movements in the West, and American power abroad.

Trump, who earned the distinction last year, has already insisted that he was tentatively offered, but declined, the 2017 honors. (Time denied this.) And his 2016 title provides a useful example of the perpetual confusion surrounding Time's Person of the Year. Knowing, surely, that choosing Trump would cause controversy, the magazine preemptively ran a story explaining the selection process (something it’s also done in years past), a text whose first sentence was used to redefine what the award is meant to be: “This is the 90th time we have named the person who had the greatest influence, for better or worse, on the events of the year,” wrote Nancy Gibbs, then Time’s editor-in-chief, before arguing that his ability to disrupt the nation drove his selection.

But the simple fact is that “[person] of the [time frame]” connotes a meaning: that said person did a positive thing. Not necessarily the best thing, or the winningest one, or even something especially popular. But it suggests that the honoree made some sort of positive contribution that was worthy of recognition. Employee-of-the-month honors, for one, are given to the best, or hardest-working, or otherwise most management-appreciated employee; the person of the hour is that hour’s cheerful focal point.

Or consider this year’s other major magazine nods. Sports Illustrated’s Sportsperson of the Year award, announced Monday night, went jointly to Astros World Series champion and American League MVP José Altuve and Texans defensive end J.J. Watt, who raised more than $37 million in relief funds to help Houston in the weeks after Hurricane Harvey devastated the city. GQ’s Citizen of the Year award—a quasi-rebranding of its Men of the Year celebration—went to Kaepernick in recognition of his activism and the movement he kick-started in the NFL and beyond. [Person] of the [time frame] is about achievement, activism, or whatever other attributes the award giver wants to stamp with its seal of approval.

So why does Time insist on using the same words to mean something else?

As surely as Time’s editors know that the award will be misconstrued, they also know how much attention the announcement gets. The Person of the Year rollout is consistently one of the Time’s buzziest moments—no small allure for a magazine whose circulation has fallen precipitously in recent years. It’s little secret that Time has struggled financially; last week, news broke that Time Inc. will be purchased by the media company Meredith, with an additional $650 million investment coming from the private equity fund owned by conservative billionaires Charles and David Koch. Given the Koch brothers’ political activism, there is concern that the sale could imperil Time’s editorial mission.

For their part, the Kochs insist they will have only a “passive” role at the magazine, which is another way of saying that the purchase is neither good nor bad. It’s only very important.