But it’s been a while since TIME has chosen a figure who, by most standards, influenced the world “for worse” — specifically, 1979 for the Ayatollah Khomeini, Iran’s supreme leader, who presided over the imprisonment of American hostages. (A significant number of Americans might put 2016’s Donald Trump in that category — but naming a democratically elected president isn’t all that risky, or even interesting, as a choice.)
In at least one case, the obvious choice for Person of the Year was simply too toxic a figure to be named. Clearly, Osama Bin Laden drastically changed America and the world in 2001; we have been living with the reality he reshaped ever since. But the editors of TIME must have known that the reaction would have been thermonuclear; instead, it picked New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani for his post-9/11 leadership that — temporarily — earned praise from even his harshest critics. (As with other choices — Lindbergh, Putin, Mark Zuckerberg — time has not been kind to TIME’s selection.)
For brand-building, it makes sense that TIME has steered away from bad guys; “Person of the Year” today sounds a lot like an endorsement, in part because TIME’s original idea has proven so catchy and reproducible. But it also leaves Americans the poorer for it: The point is to identify people who matter and let readers — and citizens — process that how they will. Given how messy our democracy has become, it’s long past time to reembrace the original conception of the cover and, occasionally, highlight the people doing it harm.
So who offers the perfect opportunity for TIME to honor it’s “for good or ill” standard when it makes the big reveal on Dec. 8?
His impact is indisputable. He owns a newspaper — the Wall Street Journal — whose circulation is second only to USA Today (and whose influence is vastly greater) and presides over the most-watched cable news network, which shapes the worldview not just of conservative viewers, but of a major political party as well.
But it is what he has done, or not done, with his power that “qualifies” him for TIME’s recognition.
In two critical areas — the integrity of the electoral process and the response to Covid-19 — he has genuinely influenced society in ways beyond the power of even the president of the United States to counteract. Whether on purpose or by neglect, he has permitted Fox News to spread poisonous misinformation that has left the United States vastly more vulnerable to political and physical afflictions.
It’s not that Murdoch does not know that Donald Trump’s “Big Lie” falsehoods of a stolen election are meretricious. In a recent speech, he said “It is crucial that conservatives play an active, forceful role in that debate, but that will not happen if President Trump stays focused on the past.” (His private opinion of Trump is said to be far less tempered.)
But faced with the defection of some viewers to the more fevered segment of the right-wing media like Newsmax and OAN, Murdoch permitted Fox to double-down on the Big Lie. He has long made opinion, rather than straight news, the dominant feature of Fox, and lately that posture has been super-charged. He watched the analyst who (correctly) called Joe Biden the Arizona winner on election night get fired. Worse, he has let his network propagate the story that the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection was not an insurrection at all. Its most popular figure, Tucker Carlson, presented “Patriot Purge” on the network’s streaming service — a fantastical tale suggesting the riot was a “false flag” triggered by the FBI, and was a precursor to political persecution of Trump backers. (That was enough for two well-known conservatives, Jonah Goldberg and Steve Hayes, to resign as contributors.)
The consequences of this journalistic malpractice are more apparent by the day. A majority of Republicans believe the election was stolen, that Biden is not the legitimate president. An unhealthy segment believes violence may be the only way to “restore” the legitimate government. Any hope that there could be genuine bipartisan cooperation in Washington has become even more remote; American democracy itself feels frighteningly fragile.
At the same time, Murdoch’s influence has been so enormous and so destructive in fueling the pandemic and its divisions. The steady stream of anti-vaccine and anti-mask propaganda emanating from Fox has cost countless lives. And what should be a public health consensus has been turned into protracted, bitter political warfare, where every local town council, every school board, runs the risk of angry brawls and death threats.
Does Murdoch know better? Of course he does; there’s a vaccine mandate at Fox that’s been in place for months. (Tucker Carlson also knows better, though he sometimes dodges when asked if he’s been vaccinated.) But if Murdoch’s audience — and profits — depends on spreading baseless tales that only deepen the pandemic, well, that’s what the market demands. (Notably, the Australian-born Murdoch’s British news outlets have taken a different approach to Covid, largely standing behind the Conservative government’s efforts to tackle the virus.)
There are, of course, far safer choices for TIME. It can choose the scientists who developed and delivered the vaccines that are now protecting millions from the coronavirus. It can choose House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who guided major legislation through the House with a barely-there majority.
But if it wants to really honor the founding premise of the idea, it can choose someone whose power has left his adopted nation in a profoundly different, and weaker state. It can and should choose Rupert Murdoch.