Expect a lot of publicity about Time magazine's choice of "The Ebola Fighters" as person of the year. That's right, "person," not "persons." That seems odd because in 2005 Bill and Melinda Gates and Bono (alias "The Good Samaritans") were named persons of the year. But consistency isn't a strong suit of this annual marketing gimmick – I mean important journalistic statement.
The tradition started with the designation of Charles Lindbergh as 1927's man of the year, but the name was changed to woman of the year when Queen Elizabeth II got the nod in 1952. Now it's "person" whether the honoree is male or female.
Also, until recently the man/person of the year was usually an individual, a reflection of the Great Man Theory of history that probably appealed to Time's founder Henry Luce. When an occasional collective winner was announced – such as 1950's "The American Fighting Man" or 1966's "The Inheritor," aka the Young Generation – readers felt cheated.
It isn't just that the Great Man Theory has fallen out of fashion. It's that the qualifications for the award seem to shift back and forth between exercising influence and doing good works. Also, the distinctiveness of the designation is undermined because Time hedges its bets by naming runners-up (four this year).
On Time's website, the magazine says that since the 1920s, "Time magazine has annually designated one man, woman, couple or concept that had the most influence on the world during the previous 12 months." But in her tribute to "The Ebola Fighters," Editor Nancy Gibbs focuses as much on the health workers' "tireless acts of courage" as on their world-historical importance. Her praise seems more suited to the Academy Awards' Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award than to a distinction once conferred on Hitler, Stalin, Churchill and FDR.
By contrast, the criterion for Vladimir Putin's inclusion in the runners-up is more the traditional one of recognizing influential political figures. Putin's chances may also have been hurt by the fact that he was person of the year in 2007. Like Oscar voters, Time seems to be wary of repeat winners.
Given all of these complications, maybe the man of the year designation ought to be retired, along with the gag gifts of the Time-cover mirrors that turned the recipient into the man of the year. It was a lot of fun when Dad could pretend to be the equal of FDR or Charles Lindbergh. But who wants to pretend that he's a member of "The Ebola Fighters"?