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Think Again: The Folly of the Time 100

SOURCE: AP/Peter Kramer

Michele Bachmann arrives at the Time 100 gala.

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It happens every spring—or at least has done so now for the past eight years. Time publishes a special issue in which it names the 100 most influential people in the world and then throws a party to celebrate how special it makes everybody feel to be part of it.

I don’t mind the party. Advertisers are an insecure lot and need to be stroked, even if they’re not invited to sit at the cool table with Chris Matthews, Jonathan Franzen, and Patti Smith. What I do mind, however, is the “program” they print to go with the dinner, which is treated everywhere else as a copy of an actual edition of the newsweekly Time, with real journalism and everything.

The Time 100, however, is the opposite of journalism. It is a series of pre-packaged lies and public relations exercises that, in many cases, are unlikely even to be authored by the people claiming the bylines. Were they to be taken seriously, they would fall afoul of every conflict-of-interest rule known to the profession (and a few they may have invented on their own).

I wrote about last year’s issue, focusing on the oddity in particular of inviting Ted Nugent to lie on behalf of Sarah Palin. But even the adoring profiles that did not lie—or were not written by lunatics—still enjoyed zero journalistic value, and were useful or significant only to the people who got to put framed copies of their alleged wonderfulness on the walls of their studies.

Well, why mess with a formula that apparently works? I loved Amy Adams in Mark Wahlberg’s Christmas flick, “The Fighter,” which garnered her an Oscar nomination, losing only to Melissa Leo in the same film. If you knew Amy, might you expect that she might hope to work with Wahlberg again? If so, is it likely that she—or her publicist—would say anything in Time that had not been previously vetted by Wahlberg’s PR people?

Let’s see. According to Adams’s tribute to Wahlberg: He’s apparently “good-looking, a commanding presence, and a casual swagger that can only be associated with true confidence.” Check. Has “deeper character.” Check. Is “insightful, instinctual and extremely funny.” Check. He “never shies away from the truth.” Check. And “puts people at ease with his honesty, because people will always respond to truth.” Gotcha. He’s “a powerhouse … a work ethic that is incomparable. He is where he is because of his hard work, his talent and his sheer force of will. I have no doubt that he can and will accomplish anything he sets his mind to. I can’t wait to see what’s next.”

I’ll bet she can’t.

The issue is filled with these sorts of conflicts. Did you expect Defense Secretary Gates to tell you anything about David Petraeus that is not straight out of the Pentagon propaganda desk?

Does the secretary of defense really take time out of his day to pen an essay for Time magazine when he has staff of, I dunno, thousands and thousands of subordinates for that kind of thing? And what of Republican New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s encomium from Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels? How hard-hitting is that one? Hmmm, “forcefulness … candor … delightfully free of the self-importance.”  

What else? Weekly Standard editor Andrew Ferguson pens a love letter to the Koch brothers? Once again, it turns out these fellas are as innocent as the driven snow. “There’s been nothing furtive or underhanded about their efforts,” Ferguson assures us. Just ignore absolutely everything in this intensely reported article that was recently nominated for a National Magazine Award, along with pretty much every honest article ever written on the topic.

Well, at least Ferguson is a pro at this kind of thing. Where is this year’s equivalent of Ted Nugent snuggling up to Sarah Palin? Well, this year’s Sarah Palin, you might have guessed, is Michele Bachmann. And the writer to take a good, hard journalistic accounting of her strengths and weaknesses? You guessed it. Rush Limbaugh.

Rush doesn’t mind admitting that he is “a great admirer of Michele Bachmann’s,” as she is “a strong spokeswoman for unapologetic conservatism. She is neither extreme nor unreasonable, which is why her philosophy has resonated with grassroots conservatives.” Problem is, says El Rushbo, that “she’s conservative. So because she is smart, talented and accomplished and a natural leader—not to mention attractive—the left brands her as a flame-throwing lightweight.”

I don’t suppose the problem could be that Bachmann is also an idiot. She thinks the Revolutionary War began in New Hampshire, not Massachusetts. She thinks the U.S. Constitution abolished slavery. She thinks slaves came to America because they were “risk takers … people that wanted a better life and were willing to do what it took to get it." She thinks something called the "Hoot-Smalley Tariff," allegedly passed by Franklin Delano Roosevelt, caused the Depression. She doesn’t know what years Jimmy Carter was president of the United States and thinks he had something to do with the spread of swine flu that happened during the presidency that preceded him. And she’s pretty sure that global warming is “all voodoo, nonsense, hokum, a hoax."

The fact that Time had to go all the way to Limbaugh to get someone to say nice things about her is perhaps significant. I see that a fellow named John K. Wilson has written a new book about Limbaugh, and found that just last Friday Limbaugh fabricated quotes during a racist rant attacking black people and President Obama. According to Wilson, “During his Good Friday rant, Limbaugh complained that Obama had failed because ‘white people are not shining the shoes of black people.’ Limbaugh backed up this racist claim with the assertion that he had audiotape of ‘black people’ at a 2009 Obama town hall in Florida saying, ‘From now on you all are gonna be waiting on us.’”  

Yeah, right.

Following an extensive search, Wilson found no evidence that any such comment had ever been made, and no earlier references to it by Limbaugh. Wilson also notes that for more than two years, Limbaugh has been making up fake quotes to smear a homeless woman, Henrietta Hughes, who spoke to Obama at that town hall. Limbaugh has falsely claimed several times that Hughes demanded a new car from Obama, which apparently never happened.

Of course, many books have been written about Limbaugh before. (I wrote about one here.) But none of them apparently convinced Time that a lying racist provocateur would not make a great correspondent to profile a potential presidential candidate.

This week, as Washington insiders gather to applaud themselves in lunch after brunch after party after dinner after cocktails for the annual spring rite of the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, turning much of our political world into a living version of Time’s mindless celebrity celebration, the magazine returns to genuine journalism with a profile of FBI Director Robert Mueller by star reporter Barton Gelman. Too bad nothing of importance that the rest of us noncelebrities need to know happened the week before.

Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a Distinguished Professor of English at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. He is also a columnist for The Nation, The Forward, and The Daily Beast. His newest book is Kabuki Democracy: The System vs. Barack Obama.

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This is part of a regular column: Think Again

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