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deconstructive asks, Nancy, being THE boss at TIME, how would you best describe your everyday duties? Top management have to handle so many larger Big Picture tasks, delegate other tasks, and keep everything profitable and running. So are you first and foremost a Chief Trendspotter and Trendsetter, or do you delegate that to local editors? Or a Chief Marketer for the TIME brand? Or a Chief Executive Referee keeping the troops happy and solving internal problems to keep TIME on course and on budget? Or Chief Crusading Officer who handles specific stories and causes that set examples for everyone and best keeps TIME in the public eye and public good? Of course, you have to do all of those, but what do you see as your primary role?
That’s a fascinating question; I hadn’t ever really broken it down that way, and as you suggest, the role involves a bit of all of those, though fortunately not all at the same time! I’d say the primary role is communicating a vision for TIME that is clear to our entire team, all around the world: What stars do we steer by, what rules do we play by, what ambitions do we share for our journalism? That is closely related to the other key role, which is recruiting, protecting and unleashing talent. If you have the best people and give them a clear vision, the rest is a matter of getting out of the way. So all the time I spend on those other tasks, whether budgets or marketing or management, is in the interest of letting great journalists do great work.
Mainly, I go to a lot of meetings. But that’s partly so other people don’t have to!
PaulDirks asks, The fact that exaggerated claims about Ebola have been pegged ‘The Lie of The year” and the fact that accurate information about the subject can actually mean the difference between life or death, do you ever feel that your responsibility as a journalist should include calling out other sources when they spread disinformation? It often feels to me that Fox news (and outfits such as the Daily Caller) enjoy a level of professional courtesy that is not warranted based on the quality of their reporting.
I don’t think you can live a happy life as a journalist unless you have a deep faith that the truth will win in the end, “sunlight is the best disinfectant”, etc. I believe our readers are smart, engaged in the world, skeptical about competing claims and eager to decide for themselves. So as long as we are doing everything we can to thoroughly cover important stories, with reliable information, as are lots of other news organizations and increasingly, individuals who find a platform for their expertise, I have faith that people who want to know the truth will be able to find it.
DonQuixotic asks, Nancy, you’ve written extensively about the line of Presidents and their influences, particularly about the legacies they leave one another and how that shapes their policies. Assuming that Hillary Clinton gets the Democrat’s nomination and is elected, how do you feel the first female President will change the “World’s Most Exclusive Fraternity”? Do you feel those that would follow in her footsteps will hold her legacy to an unfair standard, much in the same way that they likely will Obama for his being the first African American President?
I think that Hillary Clinton, or any female president of either party, would be warmly welcomed into that exclusive fraternity (though we’ll need a new name.) Here’s why; what Michael Duffy and I found in our research and all our conversations with presidents and those closest to them is that the job is so enormous, what it does to you is so profound, that this tends to unite those who’ve held it in powerful ways. When we looked at the private relationships among presidents, ideology didn’t matter, nor age or party or personality; why else was Bill Clinton calling Richard Nixon late at night? It was to talk to someone who knew what it was like to do the job. When Bush 43 invited the whole Club—his dad, Clinton, Carter—to meet the newly elected Obama, he told the newcomer that “We want you to succeed. All of us who have served in this office understand that the office transcends the individual.” I think this would be every bit as true for the first female president.
DonQuixotic asks, Nancy, is there any insight you could give us into the selection process for TIME’s Person of the Year from start to finish? How is the list cultivated? Is the final decision yours alone or does it come down to a debate and/or vote among senior TIME staff? Are there ever any objections among the TIME team about the final choice?
In the end it is my decision, strictly speaking. But I can’t imagine that I would ever choose someone if I was at odds with my top editors, who in turn represent the views of all our journalists in the field. We debate this question at great length, and some years have found the decision being made and unmade as December approaches; certainly in the first half of the year, I was pretty convinced we would be doing Putin. We aren’t looking for consensus, though we often achieve it. But the conversation and arguments are fascinating, and we all value the exercise as a chance to step back from the weekly/daily/hourly pressures of coverage to think more broadly about what really made a difference this year, where we’ve come, what we’ve learned.
deconstructive asks, Nancy, thanks for your choice of Person of the Year. It’s inspirational for a group of people like the Ebola fighters or Ferguson protestors to receive due credit. But knowing that POTY is to go to the person who, for good or ill, has most affected the course of the year, do you think maybe the POTY should be changed to be a badge of honor in affecting the news and everyone for the public good, with rare exceptions like a political or military leader who starts a world war, or something so obviously bad it can’t be ignored (like the “Red X” covers)? As local TV news proves, it’s way too easy to find negative headlines (car crashes, fires, shootings), but it’s often harder to do good than to wreck havoc, and we need more positive deeds for our society to progress …and more media coverage of those good works. Thoughts?
I will admit it is much more fun and gratifying, given the untold hours we spend on POY, when we get to choose a person or people we all admire. But that is actually an unusual circumstance, just as choosing an unambiguously evil figure like Hitler was. Most of the time, the significant players are more complex, and indeed in some way divisive. When we pick a newly elected or reelected president of the United States, as we did with Obama, Bush, Clinton etc., it’s a safe bet that roughly half the country approves and half doesn’t. Even Pope Francis last year, for all his popularity, has his share of critics who didn’t approve of the “honor” of POY. So yes, some years like this there are true heroes to extol, and some years there are villains to lament, but most years—well, influence is complicated, as are the people who weild it.
nflfoghorn asks, Hello Nancy – excellent choice for POTY. But why were Americans undereducated by the media on the effects of the Ebola virus? Immediate, irrational panic occurred instead of understanding from those who should know (i.e., MSM) about how difficult it is to actually contract Ebola.
I was struck by how much misunderstanding there was, but maybe we should not have been surprised; a great many news organizations said over and over that it was hard to contract. And yet when we started seeing doctors and nurses being infected, even when they were taking precautions and admitted they weren’t sure how they were exposed, it triggered some of that panic. Are there things about this disease that even the “experts’ have missed? Over time that dissipated, but I understand why, in the concern around the Thomas Eric Duncan case, the alarms were heard more clearly than the reassurances.
yogi asks, NG, while this may have been before your time as managing editor, which TIME cover caused TIME to receive more hate: the 2006 “You” as person of the year or the 2012 Breastfeeding cover? Is there another cover that we’re missing that’s caused more vitriol towards TIME?
With each passing year, our outrage has more outlets. So now, when we publish a cover on Hillary Clinton that people don’t like, or the one on Chris Christie, they have a much easier time making their anger known to us. So that makes it hard to compare. I know that in 1979, when the Ayatollah Khomeini was named Man of the Year, thousands of people canceled subscriptions—even though the editors reminded people that the designation was “for better or worse.” When we did Is God Dead? in 1966, there were certainly readers who found the very question blasphemous. And I’m sure as we go back into the archives, we would find more. That’s one for me to ask our new History vertical editor!