Never before has Time magazine recognized a “person of the year” who was no longer living.
But Jamal Khashoggi’s face graces its cover this year, with the murdered Washington Post contributing columnist named one of the magazine’s examples of “The Guardians and the War on Truth.”
The standard for the annual award is not popularity or positivity, but rather influence. Impact. (It has, after all, gone to Hitler and Stalin.)
And, as Editor in Chief Edward Felsenthal explained in the section of his introductory essay about Khashoggi, it’s “rare that a person’s influence grows so immensely in death.”
“His murder has prompted a global reassessment of the Saudi crown prince and a really long overdue look at the devastating war in Yemen.” The American resident, who wrote critically about his native country of Saudi Arabia, was brutally killed in October by agents of that regime.
Khashoggi’s story is part of a broader situation, Felsenthal said: This has been “a harrowing year for truth.”
There could have been another way to recognize that same reality — to feature President Donald Trump as Person of the Year.
This president, after all, lies so much and so repeatedly that new categories of fact-checking have to be invented to keep up with his overt effort to spread disinformation.
Unsurprisingly, Trump certainly thought it should go that way — though surely not for such an unflattering reason.
Asked last month whom he thought Time would name, he consulted his well-thumbed narcissist’s handbook:
“I can’t imagine anybody else other than Trump,” he responded to a reporter’s question. “Can you imagine anybody else other than Trump?”
The president, who was Time’s choice in 2016 just after his bombshell election, was one of the magazine’s top contenders this year — with another being the man he sees as his archenemy, Robert S. Mueller III, the special counsel investigating his ties to Russian interference in the 2016 election.
Obsessed for years with Time’s cover, Trump has brought his penchant for lies to this very subject.
He has claimed, for instance, he has been on the cover more than anyone else. Not true: Disgraced president Richard Nixon has him beat by a mile. (So far.)
And Trump has hung a phony Time cover, celebrating his celebrity, on the walls of at least five of his golf resorts, from Florida to Scotland: “The Apprentice is a television smash!” cheered its headline.
Representatives of the magazine last year asked that the fakes be removed, after my Washington Post colleague David Fahrenthold revealed their existence and elicited a classic Sarah Sanders response: “We couldn’t comment on the décor at Trump Golf clubs one way or another.”
But rather than look at the truth problem through the lens of an inveterate liar, Time chose a more elevated path.
“Can you imagine anyone other than Trump?” Well, yes, the editors responded, and with inspiration.
They recognized not only Khashoggi, but also the journalists at Maryland’s Capital Gazette, which lost five of its small staff in a mass shooting and kept publishing through grief.
The others were the admirable journalist Maria Ressa, chief executive of the Rappler news website, who has been made a legal target for her outlet’s coverage of Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte, and journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, who have been jailed in Myanmar for nearly a year for exposing the mass killing of Rohingya Muslims.
As the New York Times’ investigative reporter Jodi Kantor reacted on Twitter, the annual Time recognition “could easily be a publicity stunt or an empty honorific.”
But the choice transcended that. It was, she said, “so meaningful, so moving, elevating voices of truth, helping them rise above the forces of corruption, violence, and chaos.”
That the cover images, rendered in moody black and white, were contributed by a photojournalist, Moises Saman, who himself has been persecuted and jailed for his work, added to the power of the message:
“I wanted to find a way that somehow conveyed this sense of being under siege in a way — how the profession is under siege, not just in the U.S. but in many parts of the world,” Saman said.
“I was going for this sort of dark, harsh light and shadows. But also sort of portraying a sense of being steadfast.”
Even in the face of an assassination, a mass murder, persecution and imprisonment, that’s exactly what emerges.
A sense of being steadfast — for the truth.
Margaret Sullivan is The Washington Post’s media columnist. Previously, she was the New York Times public editor, and the chief editor of the Buffalo News, her hometown paper.