Time magazine's editor-in-chief Richard Stengel was asked on Sunday's Reliable Sources to respond to NewsBusters criticizing the inclusion of the Occupy Wall Street movement into Time magazine's "Person of the Year" award, given to "The Protester." In contrast, the Tea Party which helped the Republicans win a landslide election victory in 2010 earned only runner-up status in Time that year.
CNN host Howard Kurtz asked Stengel straight-up about criticisms of the magazine's bias: "Now, some of the criticism of this cover selection comes from the right, the conservative site, NewsBusters saying, 'Time is so liberal that it could not consider the Tea Party protest as a 'Person of the Year' entry, but that's not true with Occupy Wall Street.' Your response?"
Stengel defended the selection by lamely acknowledging the Tea Party as the "antecedent" of the Occupy Wall Street movement and adding that the worldwide protests are non-partisan.
But Kurtz kept pressing Stengel on the inclusion of OWS into the worldwide protests. The Arab Spring, he argued, toppled regimes in the Middle East, but "when you pull the camera back a bit and look at Occupy Wall Street, which is a significant part of this story because it's kind of the American angle – ultimately, what did it accomplish?"
Stengel answered that he sees the "Occupy" movement influencing the 2012 election – even though it remains to be seen that they will accomplish that.
"And I think the protester in the U.S. is going to influence the election this year, influence a lot of the way we think about our issues," he asserted – even though the same was asked of the Tea Party in 2009, which ended up having a large influence in the 2010 elections.
Also one of the runner-ups for the magazine's 2011 award was Kate Middleton. Kurtz scoffed at the selection. "And without any knock on the royal family, I have to ask you, really?" he asked Stengel.
A transcript of a relevant portion of the interview, which aired on December 18 at 11:42 a.m. EST, is as follows:
HOWARD KURTZ: Time's "Person of the Year" was unveiled this week, and as you probably heard, it's not one person. It is instead "The Protester," a symbol of those who challenge the autocratic regimes in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, as well as the Occupy Wall Street movement here at home.
But was that just a gimmick to avoid honoring a human being? I spoke with Time managing editor, Rick Stengel from New York.
(on camera) Rick Stengel, welcome.
RICHARD STENGEL, managing editor, Time magazine: Nice to be here with you, Howard.
KURTZ: Now, some of the criticism of this cover selection comes from the right, the conservative site, NewsBusters saying, "Time is so liberal that it could not consider the Tea Party protest as a "Person of the Year" entry, but that's not true with Occupy Wall Street." Your response?
STENGEL: Well, actually, in Kurt Anderson's fantastic cover story about the protester, he cites the Tea Party as an antecedent of what we saw all around the world this year.
And in fact, the – you know, one of the things about the protest movement is that it's politically ecumenical. I mean, there are people on the left and right. And it's not particularly ideological in one way or another. So I just don't think that's a particularly fair criticism.
KURTZ: Now I understand the Arab spring and the courageous people we saw protesting in countries like Tunisia and Egypt and, ultimately, Libya in fighting and toppling those regimes. But when you pull the camera back a bit and look at Occupy Wall Street, which is a significant part of this story because it's kind of the American angle – ultimately, what did it accomplish?
STENGEL: Well, that remains to be seen. I mean, one of the things that I like about this particular choice and that I've tried to do with other choices is, it's not simply a backward-looking choice. It's also a forward-looking choice.
And I think the protester in the U.S. is going to influence the election this year, influence a lot of the way we think about our issues. And by the way, as well, I mean, the story isn't just about Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street. It's about protests in Madrid, protests in Greece, protests in India, protests now, of course, in Russia which may be the most significant of all.
KURTZ: Now, some of the other criticism is not particularly ideological, but going back to the 2006 choice which was you, all of us, I guess. Some people saying, well, it's kind a copout, you know, because instead of picking a person, you picked this amorphous movement.
STENGEL: Well it's, you know what? Howie, I always prefer to choose a person, and I think that's what people like. You know, we've done that in most cases.
But part of the reason for the choice this year is that there wasn't a person who represented this movement, these changes, that stood out among the rest. And, in fact, part of the choice, too, reflects the fact – the failure, really, of orthodox, conventional government leaders who didn't – haven't risen to the occasion at all this year.
So by selecting the protester in general, it's a statement about the lack of leadership by individuals all around the world.
KURTZ: And when you say "making the choice," is this ultimately your decision? Or is there some kind of a committee that meets behind closed doors and then sends up smoke when you've reached a decision?
STENGEL: (Laughing) I would be revealing house secrets about that. No, it's ultimately my decision. But again, you know, we talk to all of our correspondents, all of our editors, writers, and you know, when we do it during the course of the year. And there seemed to be a general feeling that this was the most interesting idea, the most interesting way to approach it. You know, early in the year, Arab Spring was dominating. And once the kind of germ of protest started spreading, it seemed like it was an even bigger idea.
KURTZ: Right. Now, Time, of course, which is part of CNN's parent company, always gets a lot of publicity and buzz and controversy over this annual choice. You said you would prefer to pick a person. A lot of people are wondering why not Steve Jobs?
STENGEL: Well, the way I look at it, Howie, is that "Person of the Year" is not a lifetime achievement award. If we had chosen someone like Steve Jobs this year, it would have been about what he had done over many, many years. And as you know, from reading Walter's book, he was very disappointed that he wasn't chosen in 1984 as "Person of the Year," and you know –
KURTZ: Yeah, he thought he was going to get it.
STENGEL: – perhaps he should have been.
KURTZ: He thought he was going to get it according to the Walter Isaacson biography. But last year, you picked Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, so you're saying it helps to be alive to be in contention for this award?
STENGEL: Yes. Well, we've actually never in our history chosen someone who wasn't alive as "Person of the Year." And in fact, you know, speaking of the protester, we had thought about choosing someone who had died, and that would have been Muhammad Bouazizi, the young man in – the young Tunisian fruit seller who set himself afire and started this worldwide movement.
But in the end, I thought the protester was more powerful. In the end, I thought that, in the case of Steve Jobs, it would have been more like a lifetime achievement award rather than the person who really did influence events most during the past year.
KURTZ: Rick, I've got about half a minute. But you also list the runners-up, and one of them was Kate Middleton. And without any knock on the royal family, I have to ask you, really? If this is – is acknowledging of somebody who changed the world -
STENGEL: Well, we're trying to, you know, have an interesting buffet of stories for people. And Kate Middleton, you know, captured hundreds of millions of people's hearts. And in a way, that was a little lighter than some of the others, so part of that is about the mix.
KURTZ: All right. Thanks very much for joining us, Rick Stengel. We appreciate it.