The end of the year is the richest season for completely artificial news. Critics by the dozen present their top-10 movie lists; listmanic pundits pick their top 10 news stories; Time announces its Man of the Year. Or, in 2002, its Persons of the Year: three women, dubbed The Whistleblowers, who helped expose wrongdoing at Enron, WorldCom, and the FBI.
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.
The more dissension, the bigger the buzz; the bigger the buzz, the better for Time. What can I say? It's a great way to sell magazines.