To cleanse the palate, how can a year in which major news seemed to break every 10 minutes for 11 months produce a list of newsmakers this thin?
— Morning Joe (@Morning_Joe) December 10, 2018
Realistically, there are four contenders. Let’s dispense with the also-rans.
Coogler. “Black Panther” was a monster success and the cover story about black directors and black casts producing smash hits with wide audience appeal (see also “Get Out”) writes itself. But POY never goes to entertainers. Too many real-news alternatives.
Ford. Would have been a strong-ish contender if not for the fact that #MeToo (a.k.a. “the Silence Breakers”) was POY last year.
Khashoggi. What percentage of the public knows who he is? Has anything meaningful changed (yet) in U.S.-Saudi or Anyone-Saudi relations because of his murder? Not gonna sell many issues with Khashoggi on the cover either, which is a consideration.
March for Our Lives. They’re sympathetic and championed a cause near and dear to the media’s hearts, and thus are probably the most likely also-ran to pull an upset and win. At the end of the day, though, what’s changed in U.S. gun laws? Was gun control even a factor in the Democrats’ midterm wave in the House? I think the political bias in choosing them would be a bit too obvious for Time’s comfort. Plus, one of the Parkland student leaders has already said he’d decline the award if it’s given to them. (How do you “decline” being named POY?) Time doesn’t want that headache.
Moon. The same problem as Khashoggi, but worse. Who’ll buy the issue? And why would Time risk making him POY when U.S/South Korean diplomacy towards the North could collapse at any moment?
Markle. For cripes sake. She’s only on the list because Time wanted some cheap buzz among royal-watchers and gossip-rag-readers. They’d be a laughingstock if they chose her. They’d sell a billion copies of the issue, though.
The real contenders:
Putin: He won it in 2007 and Time rarely awards POY to foreign leaders twice. (Although it has happened.) But he’s had a big year, as Time’s blurb notes — reelected president, the Skripal poisoning, new tussling with Ukraine, and of course Russiagate. No foreign leader haunts the American imagination like he does. Why Putin instead of Xi Jinping, though? Xi’s country is the ascendant power and the one fighting a trade war with the U.S., and he won president-for-life power in March. Very weird that he’s not a shortlister.
Separated families. Obviously a political choice but defensible insofar as immigration is Trump’s bread-and-butter and the separated-family issue is a rare one in which public outcry was so great that he was forced to back down. I think it’s the least likely of the real contenders to win but not a super longshot.
Trump. No president has dominated the daily news cycle like he has. He makes news in ways good, bad, and embarrassing seemingly seven or eight times daily. The only wrinkle is that he won the award in 2016 and Time typically waits until a president wins reelection before honoring him again.
Mueller. The frontrunner. The media aches for reasons to extol him, he’s been a dominant news presence shadowing Trump all year, and his recent spate of legal activity has piqued public interest at the right moment. But would Time honor Mueller before he’s showed what he has on Trump? The possibility remains, however remote, that he won’t accuse the president of having committed any crimes. Imagine Time honoring Mueller now and then the results of the investigation disappointing Trump’s critics. On the other hand, if Mueller produces his report early next year, there’s a chance he might be old news by the time next year’s POY is named. Might be now or never for Time.
Trump deserves it. American politics is now just a snowglobe that he holds in his hand, shaking it whenever the urge strikes. But if Time gives it to him again, they’ll almost certainly have to make him a three-time winner if he wins reelection in 2020. And the only three-time winner in the magazine’s history is FDR. They’re not going to give Trump that distinction. It’ll have to be Mueller.