Time’s “Person” of the Year: American Values, or Media Values?

by | Dec 27, 2002

I remember as a child eagerly awaiting Time magazine’s choice of its Man of the Year each year. I believed that there were great men and great events in the world that I needed to know about, and that there was a great arbiter of them — Time — that somehow make the great even […]

I remember as a child eagerly awaiting Time magazine’s choice of its Man of the Year each year. I believed that there were great men and great events in the world that I needed to know about, and that there was a great arbiter of them — Time — that somehow make the great even greater by recognizing them as great. Does anyone care whom Time names “Person” of the Year now? Do children care, or even notice? Does anyone even read Time anymore? I literally can’t recall the last time I did.

Yes, I read the hundred or so words they devoted to me a couple years ago when I launched the world’s first full-disclosure mutual fund in the autumn on 1999. I seem to remember that Harry Potter was on the cover that week, though not as Person of the Year. That distinction in 1999 went to Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos, and it perfectly marked the very top in America’s frenzied fascination with e-commerce and with Internet stocks such as Amazon.com.

And WorldCom. And that brings us to Time’s Persons of the Year this year, three whistle-blowing women — make that persons — who blew their respective whistles at WorldCom, Enron and the FBI.

They’re an odd choice, if the goal of this distinction is to recognize people who made a difference. WorldCom’s Cynthia Cooper failed in her capacity as internal auditor to prevent WorldCom’s accounting fraud, though she did play a pivotal role in detecting it and exposing it after it had already happened. Enron’s Sherron Watkins’ internal memo on accounting fraud was utterly without consequence in prevention or detection — its only function was that, when it was detected, it provided yet another juicy tidbit of irony for the press to report on. I won’t pretend to expertise I don’t have by commenting on Coleen Rowley’s efforts to expose inadequacies at the FBI after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

Time says these persons “reminded us of what American courage and American values are all about.”

All about making no difference before the fact, and blaming after the fact? All about saying “I told you so”? Those are not American values. Those are media values.

American values are to take the risks that Jeff Bezos took to abandon a comfy career on Wall Street and gamble it all to invent Amazon.com. Media values are to proclaim him a great innovator after it’s not innovation anymore — when his company’s stock had already risen from $1.50 to $113.

After Time certified Amazon.com as the next big thing, its stock fell all the way back to $5.50. But by then, Time and its sister publication Fortune were too busy excoriating executives of companies like Amazon.com and WorldCom for selling their stock at the top to gullible individual investors — never mind that those investors were gulled by stories in Time and Fortune.

Don Luskin is Chief Investment Officer for Trend Macrolytics, an economics research and consulting service providing exclusive market-focused, real-time analysis to the institutional investment community. You can visit the weblog of his forthcoming book ‘The Conspiracy to Keep You Poor and Stupid’ at www.poorandstupid.com. He is also a contributing writer to SmartMoney.com.

The views expressed above represent those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors and publishers of Capitalism Magazine. Capitalism Magazine sometimes publishes articles we disagree with because we think the article provides information, or a contrasting point of view, that may be of value to our readers.

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