TIME Magazine, Person of the Year, and the Dangerously Biased Perspective of Modern Journalism
In recent years, TIME magazine has had to reiterate their stance on exactly what their Person of the Year accolade entails. Previously, it was assumed (rightly or wrongly) by many that Person (or, until 1999, “Man”) of the Year was reserved only for the highfliers, the business moguls, the peace bringers, and the deep thinkers.
However, TIME have stated that their choices can neither be aligned with good or bad, action or inaction, rather they are reflective of what is occurring in the world today and who or what has had the most impact or effect on current affairs for good or ill.
When TIME awarded Adolf Hitler with Person of the Year in 1938, it was stated as primarily for his involvement in the Munich Agreement. This agreement tore up the alliance between France and England known as the Versailles Treaty and reshaped Europe as the world knew it. Hitler had also armed Germany and taken Austria, with various countries and world leaders looking on in shock and horror.
The article published by TIME declaring its decision describes the steady rise in popularity of Hitler’s National Socialist Party from a rowdy group into the majority party support a charismatic leader in truly admiring fashion, a classic underdog story. The first volume of Mein Kampf is called a “’must’ on every German bookshelf” without a hint of scrutiny or irony behind this statement.
The writer then goes on to seemingly praise “Chancellor Hitler” for bringing Germany out of its depression and solving unemployment through instituting public works, a standing army, and (somewhat more alarmingly) “enforced labor in the service of the State,” as well as “putting political enemies and Jewish, Communist and Socialist jobholders in concentration camps” to the universal applause of Germany.
While TIME’s article does include descriptions of Hitler as “the greatest threatening force that the democratic, freedom-loving world faces today” and Germany as “a nation of uniforms, goose-stepping to Hitler’s tune,” one cannot help but glean a sense of admiration on the part of the magazine’s journalists toward what they perceive to be impressive political progress accomplished under his rule at the time.
It is also easy to draw similarities in the language used when Joseph Stalin was also named Person of the Year in both 1939 and 1942. The first time was for nationalizing agricultural collectivization. The second was after World War II when he brought Russia back from the brink and stood up to the country’s failure and adversity. Both pieces use the same linguistic features to describe each leader.
This is salient, as TIME have always publically maintained that their Person of the Year designation is neutral and reflective of neither public admiration nor condemnation. However, when terms such as “No compliment is too broad for him.” and “He became the fountain of social wisdom.” are thrown around about the person in question, it seems undeniable applause and respect are somehow intended.
Similar compliments were found in the TIME article that awarded Hitler the title, referring to him as “audacious, defiant, ruthless.” One of the final points made in the piece is about the value of the national pride he instilled in his people and the positive impact of the socialism he represented.
At the time of the release of these three articles about two of history’s most-agreed-upon monsters, the global political landscape was very different from what it was today. The lens that was being applied to both of these leaders was one that people of the era not only agreed with but applauded.
In TIME’s Hitler article, his strength of decisionmaking was championed as well as his mission, vision, and strategy. Was it not clear back then that he had wanted to expand the reach of the German empire to engulf all of Europe? Or were the journalists actually hoping to promote the nationalist tone, to encourage togetherness within other countries, so that everyone would band together for what they perceived to be the greater good? The same could be said for Stalin. Even during the second world war, the atrocities under his regime were well-known but often selectively ignored by various media outlets with their own agendas.
Now in 2019, TIME magazine have awarded the same accolade to Greta Thunburg, the teenage environmental activist who became a global media sensation seemingly overnight, that 91 people of varying moral and social caliber have received since 1927. And here, like in so many of the articles written about past Person of the Year recipients, much of the language used is far from neutral or unbiased.
The articles that gave Hitler and Stalin the person of year title both addressed how they had inspired people to take up their causes and follow them. The same is being said about Greta. While Greta isn’t leading a group of people into a war in the traditional sense, she is arming people with anger about the perceived state of society and the entire planet. Particular positive focus has been placed on her “School Strike for Climate” in 2018 that was aimed at pressuring the Swedish government to make massive changes in accordance with the Paris Agreement as well as a larger global climate strike that resulted in 4 million people protesting around the world for greater government intervention on September 20, 2019.
TIME is unashamed to label Thunburg as the foundation of a “moral clarion call,” which leaves little room for ambiguity over their perceptions about the nature of political upheaval she is heralding. There is no reluctance to cheer on Thunberg’s literal and direct calls for panic and fear among world leaders until they change their policies to conform to her political agendas. Her “piercing outrage” is framed as compelling, not immature or worrying from any angle. In fact, nary a word is said about her in a negative light (aside from the fact that she is drawing attention away from non-white climate activists) or regarding any possible negative consequences of the massive changes her promotion of political upheaval may result in.
It should be clear that TIME chooses their Person of the Year based, at least partially, on their ability to cause political upheaval. As such, the hindsight of history is always going to be potentially problematic when trying to determine whether the upheaval brought was actually a good thing as the language used by TIME always seems to imply it is at the time they crown their annual champion. The articles about Hitler and Stalin focus more on the emotional responses to their leadership than facts about the objective impact of their policies.
It is always easy to look back and say that maybe figures such as Hitler and Stalin who have had such an undeniably destructive effect on humanity through their unprecedented obsession with political power shouldn’t have been given the coveted TIME award. However, the accolade is based on a snapshot in of the present time and the limited purview of journalists. They are bound by the popular and acceptable narratives of their time.
all, they have a professional duty to write stories that sell magazines above
TIME Person of the Year 1938, Adolf Hitler
TIME Person of the Year 1939, Joseph Stalin
TIME Person of the Year 2019, Greta Thunberg