By the judgement of Time’s editorial staff, the pope–elected earlier this year after a surprise resignation by predecessor Pope Benedict–was the most influential global newsmaker of the past 12 months. Earlier this week, Time narrowed the finalists down to ten, then five. Pope Francis ultimately won out over Edward Snowden, Syrian president Bashar Assad, Texas senator Ted Cruz and gay rights activist Edith Windsor.The magazine's cover story sometimes seems to make more sense than the actions of the Nobel Peace Prize committee, who have turned this esteemed artifact into a political football. At The Economist, recognizing an institution (Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons -- a very noble cause, of course) and not a person reduces the heroic nature of past laureates, like Nelson Mandela (1993). This award seems consistent with the recent mediocre underwhelming recent winners (last year, the European Union or Barak Obama (2009), who had been president for just 12 days before nominations). The magazine's chart of past prizes calls out this pattern of suspect winners. An organization, not a person, won the fourth year. In an enlightened sign, the first woman won a year later. Yet non-Westerners weren’t recognized until the 1970s.
The magazine first released such a cover in 1927 under the name “Man of the Year,” and conferred the title on Charles Lindbergh for his solo trans-Atlantic flight. Since then, the annual covers have featured global peacemakers, U.S. presidents, tech billionaires, dictators and more amorphous concepts, like “the protestor” and “the endangered earth.” The editors’ intention is not to praise the figures selected, but to acknowledge their influence in shaping the news and history of the outgoing year. (Hence why Adolph Hitler made the cover in 1938.)
Why do such awards matter? Calling attention to those who do "good" (or, in the case of Time's criteria, just "do" important things, good or evil) in the world is important to the health of our combined human psyche. Dark days continue, economically and socially, around the world. When the person who invented an awesome tool -- used for both good and evil -- is humanistic enough to dedicate his earning to fostering peace, we should take the assignment of that prize with gravitas.