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Archive for Friday, December 22, 2006

Time panders to audience

December 22, 2006

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Do you like being pandered to? Do you like being presented with a mirror so you can admire yourself? Time magazine sure hopes so.

The venerable but not-much-venerated news weekly is sucking up to you, its hoped-for audience, pure and simple. In naming "you" as its Person of the Year for 2006 - complete with reflective plastic on the cover - the fading publication demonstrates how its weakening financial condition has led to a weakening of editorial judgment.

Are self-generated online media really a bigger deal than the Iraq war? Is the self-displaying YouTube more consequential than Mahmoud Ahmadinejad? Does MySpace rate higher than the proliferation of weapons and enemies around the world, from North Korea to Russia to Venezuela?

Once upon a time - back when Time was the flagship media outlet in the country - the magazine's editors would scan the news horizon every year, looking for the most significant newsmaker of the year. That's how Adolf Hitler, evil as he was, became Man of the Year in 1938 and how Josef Stalin, not much better, became Man of the Year twice, in 1939 and 1942.

In that era, Time was seen as a Mount Olympus of journalism; people trusted its godlike pronouncements about the state of the world. And even if they didn't, they had relatively few other media choices.

So while Time indulged itself in a few fluff choices during its glory years (was newly crowned Queen Elizabeth II really the most important newsmaker in 1952?), for the most part the magazine took itself seriously enough to render judgments about the world. As late as 1979, Time chose Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini as the year's most influential figure.

But then came the onslaught of the New Media. Time could no longer "administer" the news to its audience - a number of days after it happened. People could get their information sooner, through other vehicles: first cable TV, then talk radio, then the Internet. Beset by such competition, the magazine has never regained its former prominence.

Time's response was to pander. In 2001, the magazine overlooked the obvious choice, Osama bin Laden, in favor of the feel-good choice, Rudy Giuliani. At the time, the editors lamely said that bin Laden was "too small" - as if what bin Laden set in motion could be called "small." A better explanation was that Time figured it would sell more magazines with Giuliani on the cover.

But pandering still didn't stop the hemorrhaging. Five years later the magazine, like most of the mainstream media, is a shrunken vestige of its once-grand self. And although its story tries to link YouTube to larger trends - "it's about the many wresting power from the few" - the obvious conclusion is that Time is trying to be popular, as opposed to informative.

As proof, consider this explanation from managing editor Richard Stengel: "If you choose an individual, you have to justify how that person affected millions of people," he told the Associated Press. "But if you choose millions of people, you don't have to justify it to anyone." Ah, so that's the secret: Editors should forfeit their editorial function and take the easy way out - the cop-out.

It could be argued that in the world of do-it-yourself media - including news-aggregating services, such as Google News, which are free - the need for editors has been eliminated, because "you" are the editor.

Yet, the opposite also could be argued: In this world of confusion, people are still looking for trustworthy guides who will help them make judgments. In other words, bring in the experts to help us understand that nuclear proliferation is more important than Britney Spears' no-panties look.

But now we know readers won't get any such guidance from Time. The mag is too busy pandering with its "I'm begging you to buy me!" cover story.

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