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On this Christmas morning, I am hoping that someone found a way to give the editors at TIME and their colleagues throughout the land of formerly elite media a present of wisdom and perspective. Even as the laughter continues unabated at TIME’s declaration of “whistleblowers of the year,” those who know and value the role of the press are scratching their collective heads at the rush to irrelevance by a once formidable institution like TIME.
2003 is about to open – a year that could easily see war on two continents, the use of weapons of mass destruction and threats to the existence of the state of Israel. Governments across the globe are wobbly, whether in nuclear states like Pakistan or oil-rich democracies like Venezuela, and AIDS is sweeping the African and Asian lands. But the “reporters” at major news organizations seem obsessed with the flotsam and jetsam of the American carnival of finance and politics. Enron and Worldcom were significant business stories, of course, and Trent Lott’s and Patty Murray’s cases of foot-in-mouth disease are certainly interesting, but these stories and those like them are decidedly third-tier issues against the backdrop of a world boiling over with life and death controversies.
The last period of unrest and upheaval comparable to what we have entered was from 1937 to 1945. The TIME of those years named the following as “Men of the Year”: General and Mme. Chiang Kai-Shek, Hitler, Stalin, Churchill, FDR, Stalin, George Marshall, Ike and Truman. TIME Magazine was a serious news publication then. Now it is not.
Newsrooms across the country are packed full with small-minded partisans who genuinely believe that the abortion and affirmative-action debates are the central debates of our time. They literally have been raised to believe that NOW and NARAL, the People for the American Way and the NAACP are significant players in the world, and that the debates which interest these groups interest the world.
This world view is so insular that it genuinely believes that whistle-blowers are the real item when it comes to courage, and that “clinic defenses” rank with Oscar Schindler on the admiration index. Because journalists have come to believe in their own crucial importance, they have also embraced the idea that the causes they care about are the most important causes in the world. They are more and more participants in politics, and their agenda-journalism long ago left objectivity behind. TIME has led the way in this descent.
To focus on the wars ahead, and on the fearsome weapons on which they will turn, is to quickly dismiss as irrelevant the people and the causes so dear to the heart of journalism’s new self-image and mission. For newspapers and magazines and television anchors are of literally no use whatsoever on the front line of a war. Yes, they do relay information to the home-front, but that information has no impact on who lives and dies, and whether the home-front is more or less safe at the end of the day. The free press matters a lot in peacetime, but when the world straps on its guns, the bravado of reporters in bars shrinks into near-nothingness in comparison to the real deeds of courage and sacrifice on battlefields.
So why did TIME try so pathetically to turn a trio of whistle-blowers into the most important news story of the year? It is true that the TIME crowd loathes President Bush and gladly put aside integrity rather than recognize his central role in the year just past. But it is also more – one sort of blindness combined with an awesome self-absorption. When you honor whistle-blowers, you are of course honoring the press. Journalists know this, and nod at each other when whistle-blowers take bows. TIME gave itself an award this year – a year in which one of the real, though second-tier, stories was the collapse of the news oligarchy in the face of blogging, talk radio and the rise of the Fox News Channel. TIME’s choice is a Sunset Boulevard moment for big media – a desperate “look at me” moment even as 99 percent of the world is focused elsewhere, on important stories.
That bizarre self-absorption is more amusing than offensive, of course, like an old lady dressed up to try and attract the attention of young suitors. But there is a genuinely offensive aspect to TIME’s choice as well, for it is revealing in who it did not honor or even mention as a runner-up.
Although President Bush could easily have been the man selected in 2002 by any fair jury, there were other candidates that would have given the Bush-haters a way out, but which could not occur to the scribblers because of their myopia and their agenda. In 1950, TIME honored “The American Fighting Man,” and the article was a moving salute to the men deployed to Korea, fighting for their lives and the lives of innocents. It was a “police action,” of course, and not the most popular of wars, led at home by a president who was not the most popular of presidents. But the TIME editorial staff of 1950 had a lick of common sense and some measure of perspective. On this Christmas, on the eve of such a momentous year, we can only pray that as America’s fighting men and women again fulfill the noblest calling of them all, that someone in the brave world of the newsroom will notice.
It was Margaret Carlson of TIME who memorably dismissed the men and women of the military as tax dodgers just two years ago this month as the debate over their ballots raged in Florida. She apologized then. But the editors of her magazine have displayed a contempt as complete as hers in their casual refusal to place the conflicts of 2002 and those that lie ahead in 2003 before the public, or even to note that their very livelihood depends upon these warriors.
TIME is headquartered in the city of New York, for goodness sake. Think about the choice of the editors in that context, and marvel at their values. Last year, they selected Rudy Giuliani – a choice designed to insulate themselves from criticism over their priorities. This year, however, their desperation not to honor what Americans overwhelmingly honor, and not to recognize what the world – including our enemies – sees, is simply sad; a commentary on nothing and no one except themselves.
There was a time when to work at TIME was to work at an institution of stature and influence – one that represented America throughout much of the world. Now it represents only envy and a desire for an influence it can never achieve because it lacks the values the country admires.