As a PR stunt, Time magazine‘s annual “Person of the Year” exercise works to near-perfection. Each December, for an hour or two, the ever-shrinking publication gets to relive its gloried past, when it was a prime creator of America’s public agenda.
As a journalistic exercise, it’s long in the tooth. Yet it still resonates, and no more so than this year, when the magazine anointed “The Protester” as its #poy2011, to use one of the Twitter hashtag shorteners that is helping to spread the word. It resonates, in part, because it meets Time’s professed standard for its choice. The editors always insist their pick is based on the impact, for good or evil, the person or people have had on the world, but many prior picks have been, at best, debatable.
None raised more eyebrows than the 2006 pick: “You” – when Time literally put a mirror on its cover and told its readers they were oh-so-special. The point that year was to celebrate the way the public was becoming its own media in the Information Age. This year’s pick resonated with the one from half a decade ago, but unlike that one, it was entirely justified.
Time’s choice of Kurt Andersen to write this year’s cover article was smart, even inspired. He is a brilliant writer and observer. Using his own reporting and reams of material from at least 10 other journalists (they get credited at the end of the article), he pulled together the disparate yet connected threads of this still-emerging story. His writing, more than Time’s corporate and editorial pronouncements, gave the piece the gravitas it deserved.
Was the coverage perfect? Of course not. Had I been working on this piece I’d have made even greater use of the edge-in communications from the people on the ground in the places where protesters forced the most significant change.
Even so, the coverage was a reminder of what we in the new media world should keep in mind: what a news organization with deep pockets can do, even now in this age of diminishment for Big Media. Top editors, once they’ve persuaded the financial people, can order a broad, strategic deployment of journalistic resources – especially human beings who are trained to ask good questions and listen to the answers, and then ask some more questions – to bring perspective to a decentralized global movement.
In this case, of course, the perspective emanated from high floors of a corporate office building in New York. Which makes me wonder whether The Protester would have achieved such prominence had the Occupy Wall Street movement not captured national attention this fall.
The people who took over Zuccotti Park in downtown Manhattan were ignored early on by traditional media organizations. But something else was happening, as Andersen learned: “It was through my Twitter feed that I started noticing that something was going on in my city. The following weekend, I watched the YouTube video of a New York police deputy inspector casually pepper-spraying some random female protesters.”
The New York protesters, and their counterparts in many other cities, tapped into an abiding sense of outrage among Americans who’d realized that Wall Street’s sleaze-ridden institutions, especially investment banks had stolen the nation blind and then been rewarded for it. And then, when Congress considered preventing this from happening again, Wall Street and its corporate and political allies had blocked even that minor repair of a corrupt and broken system. Meanwhile, as the economy tanked and stayed in the tank, the robber barons had continued to rake in their billions in new, still-unearned wealth. And media institutions like Time, which were among the chief cheerleaders for the rise of the corrupt class, took their own sweet time to listen to the protesters who said: “Enough is enough.”
The point at which they could no longer be ignored, I believe, was when police abuse of protesters went viral – because citizen media creators, armed mostly with mobile phone cameras, captured the abuse on video and showed the rest of us, including traditional journalists, what was happening. (The New York Police Department, controlled by a mayor who owns one of the world’s biggest media companies, then assured that journalists would pay attention, by arresting journalists from big media companies whose offense was to attempt to do their jobs.)
The story of the world’s protesters, and the modern media they’ve used and inspired, is not remotely over. But their story is growing in part because old-fashioned media companies like Time are paying serious attention – and discovering that, like it or not, they are participants themselves in the global issues they choose to cover.Comments (0)