Podcast Editor Sam Pennifold on the history and lack of moral decision-making in assigning the TIME’s Person of the Year title.
President- elect Joe Biden and Kamala Harris have been named dual Person of the Year after their US General Election win in November 2020, defeating incumbent President Donald Trump. Whilst a win for freedom, democracy and American Democrats in what TIME called a “historic election”, we are reminded of the abject stupidity of the TIME’s Person of the Year award.
TIME’s Person Of The Year is an antiquated measure of success or influence that hides behind impartiality to give a voice to those who actively put our society in danger and oppose progression. Whilst every time a controversial character is chosen as the cover star or even named as a runner-up, the editors are always quick to say that the award is not, in fact, an honour. But it seems hard to really understand that when the words “Person of the Year” are plastered over a powerful portrait of the recipient alongside multiple feature length interviews and opinion pieces.
The “award”, which was first handed out in 1927, is given to a person, group, symbol or idea and is chosen by the editors on the basis of their impact on the last year, “for better or worse”. Alongside it there are now awards for businessperson, entertainer and athlete of the year.
The TIME editors have never been afraid of controversy in the past when choosing the cover star for their annual edition. Some notable choices include: Adolf Hitler in 1938, Joseph Stalin in 1939 and 1942, William Westmoreland – commander of US forces in South Vietnam during the Vietnam War – in 1965, Vladimir Putin in 2007, and Donald Trump in 2016. Trump was also a runner up again this year.
Being chosen as the cover start is generally considered a great honour, as most are respectable people standing for strong values and ideals that are almost universally respected and seen as good, such as The Guardians group that won in 2018 to represent journalists prosecuted across the world in the pursuit of a free press, or Greta Thunberg for her environmental activism in 2019. The flip side of this is that, when controversial characters are chosen, it puts them within this group – offering them legitimacy and, if nothing else, massive publicity.
It seems the editors of TIME don’t really realise the power they hold to consistently promote serious issues and celebrate people who have made a positive difference. It is undeniable that Donald Trump in the last four years since 2016 has had perhaps an unmeasurable influence on the world, but it is hard to find truly positive examples of this awesome influence. It needs to be recognised that we can discuss and recognise the influence of people who have done bad things without offering them massive publicity for their acts and in a way that doesn’t legitimise them. We should never again see a Trump on the cover of a TIME’s Person Of the Year edition or have one named as a runner up.
What should be a celebration of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, the first American women of colour to make the cover of the Person Of The Year edition, is tarred by Donald Trump being named as runner up alongside front-line workers and Dr Anthony Fauci. There is a clear odd one out. Unless the nature of the Person Of The Year title changes, we should all stop caring who wins TIME’s Person Of The Year.