A Squandered Opportunity
To Give the Devil His Due

Why Osama bin Laden should have been Man of the Year..

The Australian, Friday, December 28, 2001

It was obvious in 1999 that Time magazine had wimped out. That was the year, in a nod to political correctness, the magazine changed the name of its venerable 72-year-old Man of the Year feature.

This year, Time's emasculation is complete. On Sunday the magazine named New York's outgoing mayor Rudy Giuliani its Person of the Year--even though, by Time's standards, it should have been Osama bin Laden.

Don't get me wrong. I yield to no one in my admiration for Giuliani's mayoralty and especially, as Time puts it, for his "steadfastness in the midst of chaos". Nor does anyone loathe bin Laden more than I do. I've been perfectly content not to have seen the maniacal Muslim's vicious visage every time I passed a newsagent this week.

But according to Time's managing editor Jim Kelly, the Person of the Year is the man (and every person--Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos in 1999, George W. Bush in 2000 and Giuliani this year--has been a man) "who most affected the events of the year, for better or for worse". In the past, Time has not shrunk from selecting bad men as Man of the Year: Adolf Hitler got the nod in 1938, Joseph Stalin in 1939 and 1942, and ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini--yes, a bearded Muslim perpetrator of anti-American terrorism--in 1979.

No one can seriously argue that in 2001 the man "who most affected the events of the year" was anyone but bin Laden--who destroyed New York's two tallest skyscrapers, murdered thousands and started World War IV. Giuliani--a local, not a world, leader--is at best second runner-up, after Bush. (Time presumably ruled Bush out since he was last year's person.)

It's hard to avoid the conclusion that there was an element of pandering in Time's choice of Giuliani. Last Friday USA Today reported that Time was "in a textbook public relations dilemma: magazine sales vs editorial integrity".

"Put bin Laden on the cover," a reporter observed, "and risk the wrath of readers, advertisers and editorial writers." "It would be a nightmare for Time," says public relations guru Howard Rubenstein. "The negative fallout would last through 2002. But keep bin Laden off the cover--replaced by Bush, Giuliani or even NYC firefighter heroes--and risk appearing to have caved in to the basic need to sell the magazine's single most self-promotional issue."

If Time were honouring a hero of the year, Giuliani would be a fine choice (though my pick for that designation would be Todd "Let's Roll" Beamer and his fellow passengers on United Airlines Flight 93.)

But Time keeps insisting, as Kelly put it to USA Today, that "Person of the Year is not an honour." Since the magazine has already shown a willingness to break with tradition, it could have redefined the person as, say, "the man who best personifies the year that was"--in which case Giuliani, as a symbol of American strength and resolve, would have been as good as candidate as any.

Instead Time went out of its way to justify naming bin Laden, only to back out in the end. In the process, though, it did manage to generate a lot of buzz--boycott threats, even--then chose someone who made everyone but a few purists happy. Call me cynical, but I can't help wondering if the whole controversy wasn't a publicity ploy.

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