Click, click, click. Media loves a list. Countless outlets publish lists, WWD included. At their most purposeful and successful, lists are pithy and buzzy with a splash of controversial. And you don’t need to be an analytics wiz to know that pith + buzz + controversy = click, click, click.
Yet, while lists are very much a digital media-age sport, they are by no means its creation. John B. Fairchild started W magazine’s “In and Out” list in the Seventies. I’m not saying he invented the snarky editorial list; I don’t know who did. Other titles have long-published lists: Vanity Fair, the International Best Dressed List; Forbes, a range of “Most Powerful” and “Rich” lists, and let’s not forget that infamous trigger of high schooler anxiety and post-graduate insecurity, U.S. News & World Report’s “Best Colleges” rankings.
What’s not to love about a published list?
At the risk of sounding grand, the blatant disregard for accuracy. I don’t mean getting the essential facts right in the traditional journalistic sense; most lists, the fun ones, are subjective litanies ripe for debate and disagreement, intended to please some people and get a rise out of others. I learned that early on, given the stir W’s “In and Out” typically caused, with literally everything — people, cities, countries, fashions, brussels sprouts — potential fodder. Mr. Fairchild’s criteria were, shall we say, mercurial. One socialite proved polite and accommodating to even the most junior staffer when approached at an event. Mr. Fairchild thought her too accessible, a press whore. “Out.” As for brussels sprouts, they were going to make the issue, dammit, though whether “In or Out” was bandied back and forth literally until press time.
Still, any senior editor called upon to defend the list in a given year could make an argument — at times, perhaps, a silly one — for why each person, municipality, fashion label or vegetable, was proclaimed in or out.
Now, that level of subjectivity extends to basic tenets of language — as in what do words (and numbers) mean. For the purposes of today’s editorial list making, apparently nothing. Over the past few weeks, two interesting lists have been published, The Hollywood Reporter’s media lineup, titled in print as “The 35 Most Powerful People in Media” and online as “…in New York Media,” and Time’s “The 100 Most Influential People.”
THR’s list first. One can argue the choices (part of the appeal), especially as most hail from traditional media, though there are exceptions including “digital disruptors” Peter Hamby, host of Snapchat’s “Good Luck, America,” and BuzzFeed editor in chief Ben Smith. Still, the range is broad, from The New York Times’ Dean Baquet to Alec Baldwin to Jeff Zucker to Kelly Ripa. Each person named is highly accomplished, with the write-up on each supporting the reasons for inclusion. What makes no sense: the headcount. THR’s nice, round, listy-sounding number of 35 is really 47 (cover story on Stephen Colbert plus alphabetically arranged list), or 51, counting expanded-text sidebars on Rachel Maddow and Howard Stern. (That’s not counting two group-subject sidebars on D.C. political reporters.)
The number “35” obviously glistened with some kind of analytics sparkle because to get there, THR conjured two-as-one and three-as-one groupings with a level of arithmetic creativity to rival my daughter’s attempts at over-her-head 11th-grade math. Some combos make sense — “The Today Show’s” Matt Lauer and Savannah Guthrie; Fox honchos Rupert Murdoch, Bill Shine and Jack Abernethy. That is, one could argue, that they make sense as editorial entities. But, discounting existential musings on what constitutes personhood and whether, on some deep, ephemeral level, two people can become one, those names represent five people, not two. As for “magazine mavens” Adam Moss, David Remnick and Anna Wintour (listed in the alphabetical sequencing in that order, under Moss), in what world are those three one of anything? As invoked by THR, “35” is meaningless.
But, as some of us like to say about age, it’s only a number.
Not so the Time list. In her editor’s letter, Nancy Gibbs notes that the “The 100 Most Influential People” “explores the intersection of accomplishment and renown.” She writes that this year’s list is different from previous “dinner party”-type lineups of “people who mostly don’t know one another but would get along if they did,” as it includes “active opponents” (Donald Trump and North Korean president Kim Jong Un; Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte and Sen. Leila de Lima) as well as those whose influence “is the subject of heated debate.” In that category, she lists Julian Assange, James Comey and Stephen Bannon. All of the above are undeniably influential, as are many with less volatile name resonance, some well-known (the Pope, Melinda Gates, Jeff Bezos, Evan Spiegel) and some not, at least to me (Dr. Glenda Gray, a South Africa-based pediatric AIDS researcher; Jean Liu, who’s mobile ride-sharing service Didi Chuxing has caught on big-time in China).
It makes for a fun, informative read, but one that provides no hints as to the criteria for selection. The feature runs without a subheadline, and Gibbs doesn’t address methodology in her letter, beyond referencing the issue’s impressive roster of high-profile writers, many of whom approached the gig from a perspective of shared experiences — Rahm Emanuel on Reince Priebus; New Zealand Prime Minister Bill English on British Prime Minister Theresa May.
The 100 hail from all walks of life, grouped as Pioneers, Artists, Leaders, Titans and Icons, the categories peppered with denizens of the essential glamour/celebrity quotient. Some are unquestionably influential while some can be argued for. But not all. This is where Time ignores its own premise, redefining “influential” as a generic descriptive for overall celebrity currency and fabulousness. The celeb-turned-writers make the various cases for inclusion. Some seemed to have ignored the assignment.
Not so Meryl Streep, who penned the beautiful piece on Viola Davis, one of the issue’s five cover subjects, along with John Legend, Riz Ahmed, Gates and Bezos. Through her “hard-won, midlife rise to the very top,” Streep writes, Davis “embodies for all women, but especially for women of color, the high-wire rewards of hard work and a dream, risk and faith.” Sold.
Conversely, Margot Robbie? Martin Scorsese, who directed her in “The Wolf of Wall Street,” cites parallels with Carole Lombard, Joan Crawford and Ida Lupino, along with Robbie’s “unique audacity that surprises and challenges.” She may be the most gifted actress to ever live. But that’s not the list. Whom is she influencing? All of the beautiful, blonde, white girls out there who can now feel confident that there’s a place for their type in Hollywood?
Athletes: In a world of genuinely influential personalities including LeBron James, Simone Biles and Colin Kaepernick, all on the list, how did Tom Brady make the cut? The contrast between the two quarterbacks crystallizes the distinction between general fabulousness and genuine influence. Brady leaves Kaepernick in the dust by every measure of fame and accomplishment save one. With a single, controversial gesture, taking a knee during the pre-game National Anthem, the now unemployed Kaepernick initiated a movement among NFL players while introducing a major-sports angle to the broader national conversation about race, his influence acute and far-reaching. As for Brady, if the list were anything else — The 100 Best Ever, Most Successful, Most Accomplished, Most Blessed, Most Enviable — he could arguably claim that spot most familiar to him: number one. But not even Conan O’Brien’s amusing laudation telegraphs an iota of influence. What’s the pool? Pretty-boy jocks who avoid nightshade vegetables in hopes of prolonged athleticism and supermodel coupling? Or NFL teams who now don’t overdraft quarterbacks, hoping to catch the next Brady in the sixth round? (The recent draft answered that question.)
Yes, there’s fashion representation, and another juxtaposition — Alessandro Michele and Raf Simons. Michele’s influence is indisputable, though the accolade may be a year or so late. His Time scribe, Jared Leto, waxes with the full-on emotion of a part-time poet: “On a quiet night in January 2015…a bright light burned its way across the Italian sky, fusing together the past, the present and the future, and releasing upon the earth a new and exciting voice that would change fashion forever.” Leto left unsaid that with its gentle, decorative romance, that men’s collection, Michele’s Gucci debut, spoke powerfully to and informed the percolating cultural topic of gender fluidity. In his women’s wear, Michele espouses an aura of magical eccentricity. Influential? The answer is but a Zara stroll away.
As for Simons, A$AP Rocky offers that “It’s the point where kids, male and female alike, will get in full arguments over why he’s the greatest.” Rocky doesn’t share the substance of those arguments, but offers that Simons “wrote the future of fashion and design in the Nineties and early Aughts.” Overstated, yes, yet correct in referencing the influence of Simons’ early work. But this list is annual. In February, Simons showed a fabulous debut collection for Calvin Klein; whether it will prove influential remains to be seen. Ditto his current employment situation. Certainly Simons’ oversight of all creative aspects of the Calvin Klein brand goes against the current designer hiring grain. If he proves successful, he may reset the hiring template. Again, too early to tell.
Simons, Brady and Robbie are all talented, compelling and currently red-hot in their professions, so why does it matter if Time took liberties in declaring them “influential?” It matters because words matter, and not just when it comes to culturally resonant conversations about hurtful speech and gender pronouns. It matters in the old-fashioned way: Words have meanings: definitions. “Most” is a superlative, “influential,” a specific descriptive. With traditional journalism under assault, accuracy of word usage is as important as ever. Even for the clickbait.