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TIME Editor: “I think Assange Will Be a Footnote Five Years from Now”

When TIME Magazine named Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg its 2010 Person of the Year, the reaction among many (including myself) was one of puzzlement: Yes, Facebook is a huge phenomenon and has arguably had a bigger impact on the day-to-day lives of many people than many a more ‘serious’ technology or political movement, but why now? As John Hodgman bitingly put it, “Time Magazine just named its Person of the Year 2007.”

Of the other five finalists that Zuckerberg beat out, the recently-bailed Julian Assange seems like the most deserving candidate: While WikiLeaks has been elevated to media perfect storm over the past few weeks, it’s been doing far-reaching if highly controversial work for far longer than that, and it represents such a rare and crucial nexus between politics and technology, open and closed Internet, privacy and transparency: Whether one applauds it or condemns it, WikiLeaks is a thing emblematic of our times. And as Glenn Greenwald points out, “In TIME’s Person of the year poll, Assange received 382,000 votes – Mark Zuckerberg received 18,000 – only 20 times less!” At that, TIME did put Assange on the cover two weeks ago.

Over the past day, there’s been a lot of speculation, debate, and Internet controversy about why TIME picked Zuckerberg over Assange. Yahoo’s Michael Calderone cut through the punditry bubble and asked TIME managing editor Richard Stengel point blank why the magazine made the choice that it did. Stengel didn’t tread lightly: “I think Assange will be a footnote five years from now,” he responded.In context:

in Stengel’s view, Assange’s actions in 2010 will not have the long-term impact of Zuckerberg’s.

Stengel also pointed out that “there is no Julian Assange without Bradley Manning,” referring to the army private believed to be the leaker of hundreds of thousands of classified documents. (Manning has not been charged with a crime, but remains in solitary confinement far from the media’s gaze). The Time editor added that “Assange might not even be on anybody’s radar six months from now.”

“I’m not thinking about the moment,” Stengel said. “But when you look three, five years from now, does it make sense?

Stengel answered the “Facebook: why now?” question by referring to Facebook’s cracking the 500 million user mark and (sigh) The Social Network, since only Hollywood movies can make already mainstream technologies truly mainstream.

His point about Bradley Manning is a good one, though. Considering that TIME regularly gives its Person of the Year award to concepts or collectives rather than individuals (1950’s “The American Fighting-Man,” 1960’s “US Scientists,” 2006’s [shudder] “You”), WikiLeaks itself may have been a better nominee than the polarizing man who acts as its frontman and its lightning rod, but who by his own admission isn’t essential to its operations.

(The Cutline via Romenesko)

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