Media criticism and cultural critiques are not the game and not the purpose of this column.
But the Nelson Mandela encomiums have run their legitimate and laudatory course. Washington’s budget deal is so piddling, it scarcely deserves comment.
Today we learn the identity of Time‘s Person of the Year. As a cultural lodestar, the POY has, like Time itself, lost some of its luster. Time is not the intellectual fulcrum it was for elites or the middle class who aspired to someday join them. Still, it is a mirror for America culturally and politically, and the POY becomes part of each year’s time capsule. I don’t care who the POY will be this year nearly as much as I am dismayed about who made the list of 10 finalists. And I’m astonished and infuriated over those who did not make the list.
Three women are among the 10:
- Edie Windsor, who filed suit against a federal assessment of $363,000 in estate taxes because her deceased partner and spouse (via a marriage in Canada) was a woman, Thea Spyer, not a man. Windsor’s case made it to the Supreme Court and led to the overturning of the Defense of Marriage Act;
- Kathleen Sebelius, the Health and Human Services secretary, former governor and insurance commissioner of Kansas, and the person at the helm of the checkered implementation of President Obama’s Affordable Care Act;
- And Miley Cyrus.
Let’s stipulate what Time knows but will not admit. Cyrus is not a serious contender for POY. She is click bait, a bona fide celebrity with universal name recognition who has generated for Time wave upon wave (more than 340,000) of curious website clicks. In this, Cyrus is a Time gimmick, a flashy and exploitable Web commodity transparently unfit for POY status and unambiguously grafted onto the list for commercial reasons.
Who should have been on the list instead of the former Hannah Montana?
How about Janet Yellen? Yellen is the first woman nominated chairwoman (as this column indicated she would be in July) of the Federal Reserve. That means she will become the Fed’s first female chair, something one would have to imagine caught Time’s eye. Wait, Yellen didn’t do anything this year worthy of POY merit? Vice chairman of the Fed is insufficient, I suppose. As vice chair, Yellen has participated in all decisions about qualitative easing, the Fed’s unprecedented and controversial monthly purchasing of $85 billion in Treasury bonds. As the new Fed chair, Yellen will have to unwind qualitative easing, and her approach and explanation will transform the economic landscape and the postrecession status of the Fed. Time has often used POY status to discuss figures at the cusp of history — certainly that’s why Hitler was chosen in 1939 and Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979. Yellen has already made history and is unquestionably on the cusp of economic history that will reverberate across all income sectors in the U.S. and send shivers through the world economy. But Yellen is no Miley Cyrus.
How about Mary Barra? She was named CEO of General Motors on Tuesday, the first woman ever to lead an American automaker. Well, she was just named, so Time could not have known who she was, right? Wrong. Barra has for months been on the short list to replace Dan Akerson as chief executive and was most recently in charge of global product development and purchasing; since 2010, she oversaw global engineering, design, and quality, and has been credited with simplifying and improving GM design by reducing from three to one the number of project supervising engineers. GM’s rise from near-bankruptcy (thanks to a government bailout that will leave the taxpayers $10 billion in arrears) is a fascinating story of industry policy. Barra’s been with GM for 33 years, and her role in the company’s rebound would be among the most readable and fascinating narratives about leadership and business guile in recent memory. But Barra is no Miley Cyrus.
How about Sheryl Sandberg? Whether you love or hate Sandberg’s book, Lean In, you cannot deny it triggered a debate about how women succeed; how the men in their lives try to help them succeed (often at societal costs Sandberg was the first to serially denounce); how ingrained (and legal) corporate habits still tilt against women’s advancement; and how women themselves often defeat themselves before the competitive corporate games begin. Sandberg, of course, is more than an author of a best-selling book. She’s the chief operating officer of Facebook and a former vice president of global online sales at Google. Sandberg was also a protégé of, and vocal advocate for, Lawrence Summers over Janet Yellen (see above) as next Fed chair. Talk about a subplot. But Sandberg is no Miley Cyrus.
How about women in the Senate? Twenty. It’s the largest number of women in the Senate in American history, and their collective action is changing the way the Senate works and the way politics and legislation move. Four women are powerful committee chairs — Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., of the Agriculture Committee, Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., of the Intelligence Committee, Patty Murray, D-Wash., of the Budget Committee, and Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., of Environment and Public Works. Never before have women in the Senate wielded this much legislative power. But the 20 senators are not Miley Cyrus.
How about Sen. Kirstin Gillibrand? Gillibrand, D-N.Y., is not a committee chair, but her push to change the military’s approach to accusations of sexual assault (taking decisions on investigation and prosecution out of the hands of commanders) has rattled the Pentagon and changed the course of the legislative debate. Gillibrand’s approach may not prevail during Senate reauthorization of the National Defense Authorization Act, but it has already come closer than anyone thought possible and elevated the issue of military rape into a story of accountability, justice, and respect up and down the ranks of an all-volunteer force. But Gillibrand is no Miley Cyrus.
Reviewing the missed opportunities on Time‘s top 10 finalists for POY, I’m reminded of this Hannah Montana metaphor: “It’s like “walkin’ barefoot through a field of cows after their mornin’ sit down!”
Very true, Hannah. I don’t blame you or Miley. I blame Time. Maybe others will, too.
The author is National Journal Correspondent-at-Large and Chief White House Correspondent for CBS News. He is also a distinguished fellow at the George Washington University School of Media and Public Affairs.