For its 2018 Person of the Year, Time Magazine has selected a group of journalists who have faced prison time, put themselves at great risk, and, in some cases, given their lives for reporting the truth.
Billed as "The Guardians and the War on Truth," they include the staff of the Maryland Capital Gazette, where a mass shooting took the lives of five journalists; imprisoned Myanmar reporters Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, who reported on the murders of Rohingya Muslims; Maria Ressa, editor-in-chief of the Philippines-based news site Rappler who was indicted for tax evasion by the government of Rodrigo Duterte; and most significantly, The Washington Post's Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudi Arabian dissident who was brutally murdered on the orders of Saudi crown prince Mohammad bin Salman. All four appear on separate covers of the magazine, which hits stands today.
Time Breaks Precedent in Honoring Khashoggi
Time has honored collectives as Person of the Year before. Last year, they named "The Silence Breakers" to honor the brave survivors of sexual assault who spoke out against their attackers. However, what makes this decision unusual is its unsparing look into the brutal world journalists are now forced to cover.
The magazine's credo in choosing a Person of the Year is that they must be “the single person who, for better or worse, has most influenced events in the preceding year." This creates a conundrum as to whether or not to choose someone who represents humanity at its best, or its worst. The controversial 1979 selection of Ayatollah Khomeini led to the magazine shying away from selecting mass murderers and dictators.
The last time this problem came up was in 2001. Following the attacks of 9/11, it seemed right to name Osama bin Laden, who fit their standard as “the single person who, for better or worse [italics theirs] has most influenced events in the preceding year." But the subsequent backlash from readers led them to name then-NYC-Mayor Rudy Giuliani instead.
What's more, honoree(s) must consent to an interview along with the title. According to Michael Moore, he and Mel Gibson would share Person of the Year 2004 for their hit films Fahrenheit 9/11 and The Passion of the Christ, which reflected the red state/blue state division in America. Gibson supposedly agreed to it, then changed his mind at the last minute, forcing the magazine to scuttle Moore and choose President George W. Bush instead.
Why He Was Chosen
The obvious inability to interview Khashoggi makes him an unusual choice since the magazine has never awarded someone posthumously before. But as Time editor Edward Felsenthal explained this morning on Today, it is "very rare that a person’s influence grows so immensely in death, and his murder has prompted a global reassessment of the Saudi crown prince and a really long overdue look at the devastating war in Yemen.”
The magazine story, by Karl Vick, also highlights the ways social media has complicated journalism, with fake news stories generating more engagement on sites like Facebook than real ones; the way facts can be manipulated by editing out inconvenient truths, like the InfoWars video shared by the White House that mistakenly depicted Jim Acosta assaulting the woman who took his mic away at a post-election press briefing; and the consolidation of media in the United States that has left many areas without local papers.
Lest this should all leave readers despairing, Felsenthal's accompanying editorial reminds us that despite the challenges they face, journalists like Khashoggi can still inspire us to take action against our oppressors. His final column for the Washington Post was a brave denunciation of Arab governments' control over the press, arguing for a public forum that would allow his countrymen to address their societal ills.
"In its highest forms," Felsenthal wrote, "influence—the measure that has for nine decades been the focus of TIME’s Person of the Year—derives from courage. Like all human gifts, courage comes to us at varying levels and at varying moments."
The staff of the Capital Gazette, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, and Maria Ressa exemplify this courage, and even in death, so does Jamal Khashoggi.