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Jim Kelly: Time Magazine's Person of the Year is a 'Very Big Deal'
Bloggers could be the 2004 recipient of Time's annual honor, hints the newsmagazine's managing editor. Also, President Bush and Karl Rove "is a pairing that has a lot of merit." God, however, would be "problematic."

By Patrick Phillips
I Want Media, 12/16/04

Jim Kelly, the managing editor of Time magazine, is set to announce Sunday the newsmagazine's Person of the Year -- the most "durable annual franchise" in magazines. "It's bigger than Sports Illustrated's swimsuit issue," he says. The Time special issue hits newsstands Monday.

A 25-year Time veteran, Kelly has been the magazine's top editor since January 2001. He admits that the annual honor, chosen by Time's editors since 1927, is "seen by some as a gimmick."

"We work very hard to prove every year that it's a thoughtful choice," he says.

I Want Media: So, who are you naming as the Person of the Year for 2004?

Jim Kelly: Someone who deserves it.

IWM: You could break the news on I Want Media.

Kelly: I'm sure I could. [laughter]

IWM: Who are the leading contenders?

Kelly: It's been an interesting year. We've had two films that did much better than anyone expected: Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" and Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 911." There was a lot of thought about naming those two as Filmmakers of the Year. Karl Rove got a lot of votes. Rove was the architect of President Bush's reelection campaign and victory, as Bush himself said. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the insurgent leader in Iraq, got a number of votes as kind of representing the enemy that America faces. We got a lot of votes for bloggers as the Persons of the Year. And, of course, we got a lot of votes for President Bush because he did get reelected.

IWM: Who's your personal choice?

Kelly: My personal choice tends to be the choice.

IWM: This past summer Media Industry Newsletter reported that your choice at mid-year was Donald Rumsfeld.

Kelly: That was after the Abu Ghraib thing. Rumsfeld was a runner-up last year. We did a long story about him. By the time we got to the end of the year, I would say that 2004 was more of an al-Zarqawi year than a Rumsfeld year.

IWM: Can you tell me who it won't be? President Bush has already won, so it won't be him, right?

Kelly: Bush got it in 2000. And it's very unusual for us to give it twice to the same person. We did it with Deng Xiaoping; we did it with Mikhail Gorbachev. We did it with Ronald Reagan, but he had to share it one year with Yuri Andropov. Richard Nixon got it twice, but he had to share it one year with Henry Kissinger.

When we do presidents a second time, they tend to share it with someone else. We did Bill Clinton twice; the second time around we did him with Ken Starr. I mean, Bush and Rove is a pairing that has a lot of merit, when you think about it.

IWM: Time held a lunch panel last month to discuss the candidates. According to one report, the frontrunners included God and Jesus. Why would God and Jesus be contenders?

Kelly: It came partly out of the success of the Mel Gibson film. I've joked before that we tend not to do dead people. But in the case of Jesus he's apparently coming back. [laughter]

I think it's very problematic to do God. Partly because I suppose you could do God every year. And the second thing is, people in different religions view God differently, obviously. So you would have to ask: Who is God? And the third thing is, the interview would be very, very difficult.

IWM: One would presume. The Person of the Year is regarded as a keepsake issue. How well does it sell?

Kelly: It sells very, very well. Let me put it this way, I could put you on the cover and it would be one of the better-selling issues of the year.

IWM: Well, my mother would probably buy it.

Kelly: Or you could put me, or my son. I can't think of a more durable annual magazine franchise than Time's Person of the Year. I would say this even if I wasn't the editor of Time. The Person of the Year is a very big deal. I think it's bigger than Sports Illustrated's swimsuit issue.

It is seen by some, I must confess, as a gimmick. And we work very hard to prove every year that it's a thoughtful choice. The perfect choice is one that is slightly surprising, but as soon as you hear about it something in your mind clicks and you go, "Oh, I get it." I would get nervous if we were doing things that were seen as purely gimmicky or stagy.

You could do the president of the United States almost every year because the president, for better or for worse, does tend to have the most influence every year. Given that, you try to find someone who affects the news in maybe less obvious ways.

IWM: Last year it was The American Soldier. What was the reaction to that choice?

cover Kelly: That was very positive. A lot of people aren't going to be jumping up and down saying it should not be The American Soldier. Whether you were for or against the war in Iraq, you have to give credit to American soldiers for being there.

But what I liked about it was the story behind the announcement. The story behind the image was really much more complex than you might imagine. The story gave a very nuanced view of what it was like to be a soldier in Iraq -- how difficult that life was, what a difficult mission they had. It was not some kind of red-white-and-blue, glorious tribute to American soldiers. Once you read the story you learned that it was a much tougher mission than, I think, these soldiers signed up for. In some ways, the story was better than the simple headline of "The American Soldier."

IWM: When will the 2004 Person of the Year be announced?

Kelly: Sunday morning, 8 a.m. I'm going to jump out of bed, open up the window of my West Side apartment and yell the selection in a loud, loud voice. [laughter] At the same time, it will be announced by, AOL, CNN and ABC. Only a few people will actually hear my yelling it out the window.

IWM: I Want Media is holding an online poll to name the Media Person of the Year -- the person who had the most influence in the media in the past year. Who would you choose?

Kelly: I think it should be Dan Rather. The blogs are enjoying the kind of celebrity they have now because of Dan and "60 Minutes." Dan had a very distinguished career and represented so many good things about what is viewed as mainstream media by the bloggers.

He's also a cautionary tale for all of us in this business. Everything we do is scrutinized and analyzed carefully by many people who 20 years ago either didn't care, shrugged or wrote a letter to the editor. But Power Line, "Buckhead" at Free Republic and other bloggers -- who tend to be conservative but are not solely conservative -- have added a level of commentary and investigation to what the mainstream media do. They remind us we've really come a long way from receiving a letter in the mail five weeks after a story is published.

IWM: The Media Person of the Year will be announced this Sunday as well. Could it be possible that we will be honoring the same person?

Kelly: It's a possibility. That would be the ultimate convergence.

IWM: Neither God nor Jesus are up for Media Person of the Year. However, Howard Stern is one of the candidates. Is Howard Stern a contender for Time's Person of the Year?

Kelly: I can't say he's on the shortlist.

IWM: Getting back to blogs, at last month's Folio: Show you gave a speech in which you said that blogs have "managed to undermine mainstream media." Do you see blogs as a threat?

Kelly: No, not at all. I used the verb undermine, but let me rephrase that.

I read a lot of blogs. And a lot of people who blog are the readers I want. These are people who are skeptical about what they hear and don't buy the conventional wisdom. And that is a big part of what I'm about and what I'd like to think Time is about. We don't just parrot the conventional wisdom. I don't think we're a mouthpiece for anyone. My mantra is: I don't want to be cynical, I want to be skeptical.

I don't think objective journalism is possible, ultimately. Fairminded journalism is; making sure you look at all sides of an issue is. I feel very, very strongly about that. Time is as nonpartisan as I think that a publication can be. The best thing I can tell a reader is: This is what someone says, and this is what the truth is behind what that person says.

IWM: Which blogs do you read?

Kelly: I'm a big fan of Power Line. I'm a big fan of Andrew Sullivan. I like Josh Marshall. I love Mickey Kaus. I like Instapundit. I'm a big fan of Eric Umansky, who does Today's Papers for Slate. And I like Jack Shafer's stuff at Slate a lot.

IWM: Are bloggers leading contenders to be Persons of the Year?

Kelly: I would say that they are contenders, yes. You could name one blog and call it Blog of the Year, or name a group of people and call them Blogs of the Year. There are six or seven people who clearly have a lot of influence.

IWM: What is your opinion of Newsweek and U.S. News & World Report nowadays? I guess they're your main competitors.

Kelly: I view our competition as basically anything else you can do with your time. Our competition is newspapers, television shows, the Internet. Yes, Newsweek and U.S. News are newsmagazines that come out weekly and cover some of the same things we cover. Time has been around longer than the others. Time is the No. 1 newsmagazine in the world. That's just reality.

But I don't worry so much about those guys as much as how I make a reader who has lots of other things to do with his or her time want to read Time magazine. For me, television and the Internet are something that I keep in mind when I do the magazine.

IWM: Is there too much media competing for people's time?

Kelly: I read anything and everything. If there were 20 newspapers that were of the quality of the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post and the L.A. Times, I would read those as well. In the world I live in, you can never have too much media. You just have to be smarter about what you're going to read.




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