TIME Magazine caused a lot of commotion when it selected climate change activist Greta Thunberg as its Person of the Year. That was probably the whole idea.
Young Ms. Thunberg is one of the more polarizing figures to emerge this year. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., was the leading figure in the climate movement until the 16-year-old from Sweden entered the picture.
Ocasio-Cortez had youth, charisma and the Green New Deal working in her favor. If there’s something the media likes better than a 28-year-old who can draw a crowd and sell clicks, it’s a 16-year-old. And Thunberg delivered clicks. Thunberg’s trip to America came as the impeachment hearings in Congress stole the show from Ocasio-Cortez and her Squad. As Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., took over, the chattering class pretty much forgot about the Squad.
Thunberg gave impeachment-weary news consumers something new to watch. You could admire her or you could make fun of her. My online friends were about evenly split between the two sides.
TIME’s Person of the Year award is as much about selling magazines as it is about honoring the most influential person in the nation or the world. There’s nothing wrong with that as long as you understand it.
Who would I have nominated for person of the year? Probably the anonymous Hong Kong protester. Tens of thousands of people in that city are waging war against a dictatorial regime. But you know what? Anonymous protesters half a world away don’t sell magazines in the United States.
This year gave us another teen who generated clicks and headlines, but he was not treated nearly as well as Thunberg was. That person was Nick Sandmann, the Covington (Kentucky) Catholic High School junior whose only offense was attending an anti-abortion March for Life Rally in Washington, D.C., on the same day that an Indigenous Peoples March was happening.
In many people’s eyes, Sandmann became the face of white privilege at best and white supremacy at worst when he grinned as an Indigenous Peoples March participant got in his face and banged a drum. He was vilified online and in the media before all the facts of the event became known. Instead of being the taunter, as many people assumed when the photo spread throughout the internet, he was the victim of taunting.
Some of the people who flamed Sandmann have apologized. Some have not.
Along the way, Sandmann picked up some pretty good handlers who got his side of the story out there and filed nine-figure defamation lawsuits against national media organizations.
As with Thunberg, Sandmann was praised by some and condemned by others.
So we are closing out a year that began with a teenager who did not seek the spotlight and one who did. The guess here is that most people who follow the news sympathize with one and wish the other would just go away.
With impeachment activity ramping up, both probably will. Ocasio-Cortez and the Squad will have to run for re-election next year, so they will probably find their way back to the spotlight. Sandmann could be back in the news in January as the anniversary of his encounter in Washington nears. Thunberg is back home in Sweden. We’ll have to see if she has enough star power to make a career out of climate activism.
A final note: In his acceptance speech last week, Heisman Trophy winner Joe Burrow mentioned poverty in his native Athens County, Ohio. The nation responded with hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations to the food pantry there. He’s not a teenager, but Burrow showed the good that young people can do when they have a platform.