Putin and Ebola Were Not Created Equal

This year, the editors of Time Magazine gave the title of Person of the Year to those who are fighting Ebola. The magazine’s readers, however, chose Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Russian President Vladimir Putin, who was among the favorites, did not receive the title of the one who “most affected the news of our lives, for good or ill, this year.” He took third place.

2014 has been the year that the Ebola epidemic is said to have killed the most people since the moment that the virus was discovered. According to data from the World Health Organization, the number of victims killed by the virus had reached 6,202 by the beginning of December. 17,551 had been infected.

This is not the first time that a collective has been a laureate of the award. In 1950, at the height of the Korean War, the image of the American soldier was the Person of the Year. In 2003, during the war in Iraq, the same image won again. Before that, the list of winners included the Hungarian Revolution, American scholars, Baby Boomers, the American middle class, American women and planet Earth. In 2006, the winner of the most votes was “You” and was given to anonymous Internet users.

“Essentially, Ebola is one of the most central ‘media panics’ of this year,” says Dean Elena Vartanova of Moscow State University’s journalism department. “It is possible that the event that called up this ‘media panic’ could fail to have historical significance. We are probably going to remember the effects that are all over the mass media in relation to what’s happening. In this specific case, we are seeing Time Magazine as a publisher that isn’t judging events or people who are contributing to the development of humanity, but simply effects of the media.” Two days before the announcement of the results of the polls, the magazine’s editor, Nancy Gibbs, read the short-listed nominees for Person of the Year live on NBC.

Among the nominees was Russian President Vladimir Putin, but, in the end, he received third place, after the Ferguson protestors. In 2007, Putin was Person of the Year for “fortifying stability and strengthening the role of Russia in the world.” “He has guaranteed his political future with his public policy and his foreign policy has widened Russia’s influence on the state of affairs in the international arena, albeit not in a particularly wholesome manner,” noted the magazine at that time.*

On the list of finalists this year, along with the Russian leader, were leader of Iraqi Kurdistan Masoud Barzani, the founder of the Alibaba Group Jack Ma, the head of Apple Tim Cook, the commissioner of the NFL of America Roger Goodell and American singer/actress Taylor Swift. The selection criteria was put together back in 1927 by Time’s first editor, Henry Luce, as “the person or persons who most affected the news of our lives, for good or ill, this year.”

Traditionally, the person of the year is chosen by the editor-in-chief of Time Magazine. However, in recent years, there has also been a poll among the readers. According to the tradition, Time puts up 40 nominees on its website. A year ago, the short list was comprised of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, former National Security Agency employee Edward Snowden, 84 year-old LGBT rights activist Edith Windsor, and the Republican senator from Texas, Ted Cruz, who many consider responsible for the so-called government shutdown of 2012.

Notably, last year, when journalists chose Barack Obama, readers chose the North Korean leader Kim Jong-il. This year, the opinions of the editor and the readership were split once again.

According to the 2014 poll, which was concluded on Dec. 6, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi was number one with just over 16 percent of some 5 million votes. Among the top three were also the protestors in Ferguson and the leader of the protests in Hong Kong, Joshua Bong. The president of the Russian Federation took sixth place, whereas the American president took 11th.

Among the 50 nominees for the title were, in part, Pope Francis (last year’s winner), Chancellor of Germany Angela Merkel, 17-year-old Pakistani human rights activist Malala Yousafzai, and the kidnapped schoolgirls of Nigeria. “We need to remember that the person of the year is a very strong marketing move for the magazine,” Elena Vartanova reminds us. “Since the time of Henry Luce, who thought that a person or event needed to be chosen that most affected the American news, Time has been establishing its rating system. Those ratings are designed to attract the attention of their readers.”

In the words of Vartanova, “The magazine targets a specific audience, that is, Americans. The choice is subjective and through that very subjectivity they show their attitudes toward events.”

* Editor’s Note: These quotes from Time, while accurately translated, could not be verified.

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