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Time Was
Influence Prattling

Legends in their own Time

Time magazine’s list of the world’s 100 “most influential people” made its first appearance at the height of the go-go 1990s, in 1999 to be precise, just after the sun first rose on the stained blue dress. Back then it was the “20th century’s most influential people.” Before that incarnation, we had, year after year, “ America’s 25 most influential people.” On the cover in the 1997 version? Don Imus. Colin Powell. Rosie. And here was Imus’s stand-out quote, plastered in big letters over two pages: “My goal is to goad guests into saying something that ruins their life.” Also making appearances in that ’97 vintage those ten brief years ago: The eternally smug John McCain, Steve Coz (editor of National Enquirer), George Soros, the eternally kooky Andrew Weill. Someone somewhere along the way realized that even though America hogs 25 percent of the world’s energy consumption—and produces 25 percent of its pollution—it didn’t follow that it could claim the 25 most inflatable people in the country while neglecting to note a single non-American influence. Between that and the 20 th century’s closing bell, the annual world 100 was born. The result: Instead of 25 most-influential Americans a year, we now get 60 or more. Out of sixty-two names that I counted in this year’s edition before tiring of the exercise, 34 were American. Is America’s influence that disproportionate to its numbers? (The most influential people according to a readers’ poll is far more interesting.)

It’s no small matter that the list is also displacing all other cover fodder for the week, proving yet again, and most of all, that one of the most influential organs of perception in the world is also distortion’s loudest voice: In a week that saw the devolution of yet another Israeli prime minister on the ashes of another Lebanon war, the elevation of a Bush wannabe to the French presidency, the shafting of the democratic process in Turkey (the world’s only functioning, secular Muslim democracy), the continuing deconstruction of the Bush administration’s sham in what’s left of Alberto Gonzales, and one of the highest weekly tallies of American dead in Iraq since the beginning of the war, is it really possible that the most important event of the week is Time magazine’s list of the 100 allegedly most influential people in the world? Is it possible that baseball-card-length pandering snippets of Kate Moss, Leonardo diCaprio, Cate Blanchett, Al Gore, Condi Rice, Pope Benedict, Hillary Clinton, Oprah and many of the other usual suspects rounded up for such off-the-rack journalism, have more to instruct us than a little analysis, a little investigative look-see behind the scandals, the massacres, the heists of the week that make gobs of blue-dress stains look like a Sesame Street parody in comparison?

Of course it’s possible: Marketing is what manufactures and pushes news as far as the establishment American press is concerned. Truth-seeking isn’t even incidental. Time’s editors decide what the news is, in concert with Time subscribers’ desire for what news isn’t—for soft-core entertainment that does absolutely nothing to advance debate, project new ideas, analyze nuances and subtexts in what we are constantly told is a complex world in need of magazines like Time to explain it. No wonder the magazine Is tanking in readership and relevance. But what am I doing here if not legitimizing the ploy by debating it, contradicting the very thing I just said? Well, it’s the Inhofe principle: Even imbecility can be elected senator, and when it is, letting it sail unobstructed makes matters worse. It takes pointing out the stains on a rag if the hope is that the rag will redesign for the better. Time, in fact, just did, joining a herd of redesigned newspapers and magazines across an industry that’s been losing its fingernails trying to hold on to a readership that no longer cars for the form. Redesigns won’t stop the fall. Only content, lots and lots of improved, quality content, will, but that costs money, and shareholders aren’t interested in shelling it out. Fire reporters instead.

Which Time did, too. Ten years ago its 25 Most Influential American articles were genuine articles, written by genuine journalists and running about 400 words each. Not anymore. In this year’s pandering the magazine shortened the snippets to about 200 words and subcontracted the verbiage to celebrities, or fellow-panderees: Katie Couric on Michael Bloomberg (“From the ashes of 9/11, Mayor Bloomberg rebuilt New York City as only a nonpolitician could.” Did anyone at Time point out to Katie that New York was never destroyed beyond a few square blocks?), Henry Kissinger on Angela Merkel (Henry manages to go the 200 words without ever mentioning the Treaty of Westphalia), Martin Amis on Osama (“bin Laden’s statements are tangles of tautology.” Of course), John McCain on Gen. David Petraeus, Nelson Mandela on Oprah, Melissa Etheridge on Elizabeth Edwards, James Hansen on Al Gore, Barbara Walters on Rosie O’Donnell (clever, that one), David Bekham on Simon Fuller, and so on: Cheaper to pay those big-name free-lance one-timers than hire a staff writer with benefits. It’s how influence degrades into fluff on a bed of cool.

No wonder is about movie stars and star athletes and chat-show moguls and the Siamese tandem of businessmen and politicians. Not a single journalist and barely a writer or two make the list: The most influential professions of the civilized world have no place in a world more interested in the appearance of civility than civilization, and more adept at trampling civilization for a buck than fostering it for a billion souls. No wonder that Newsweek’s cover this same week sums up the dearth of true leadership all around in one smack (directed at the 2008 field of paparazzi presidential candidates): “WANTED: A NEW TRUMAN.” For now, Time says, settle for a rack of Truman Shows.

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