Time magazine has named CEO of Tesla and SpaceX Elon Musk as Person of the Year.
“Person of the Year is a marker of influence, and few individuals have had more influence than Musk on life on Earth, and potentially life off Earth too,” Time editor-in-chief Edward Felsenthal wrote. “In 2021, Musk emerged not just as the world’s richest person but also as perhaps the richest example of a massive shift in our society.”
It was indeed a banner year for Musk, who garnered attention for becoming the richest person in the world in part due to the rise in Tesla’s stock price. With SpaceX, Musk launched the first-ever mission to Earth’s orbit with a crew of only tourists and no professional astronauts.
This tradition from Time began in 1927 as “Man of the Year” and has since changed to not only recognize an individual, but also to consider the impact of a group, movement or idea that had the most influence in the past year. In 2020, Joe Biden and Kamala Harris were picked together as of Person of the Year. The annual choice is not necessarily considered an honor, since the selection could have wielded negative influence. For example, Adolf Hitler was named Man of the Year in 1938.
Some of Musk’s online behavior has gotten him into trouble and at times distracted from his accomplishments. In 2018, the US Securities and Exchange Commission charged him with fraud for tweeting that he was considering taking Tesla private. He agreed to a deal that involved having Tesla lawyers approve tweets that would affect shareholders but a recent Wall Street Journal report said two tweets violated that agreement.
In his writeup introducing Musk as Person of the Year, Felsenthal called attention to his “persona,” describing it as a “blunt instrument that often seems to revel in division and aggressive mockery,” which the public sees through his frequent use of Twitter.
The safety of Tesla cars have also been under scrutiny. The company’s Autopilot software is under federal investigation for crashes that have occurred with parked emergency vehicles, and a recent New York Times investigation questioned the software’s safety. In a sit-down interview with Time, Musk addressed some of the concerns.
“The statistics that I think are at this point unequivocal that far more accidents off Autopilot than on Autopilot,” Musk said. “This is not to say that Autopilot is perfect. Now you get to full self driving where you don’t need to pay attention. We still obviously have a lot of work to do.”
How ‘Person of the Year’ has evolved
Time has grown the “Person of the Year” tradition into a larger franchise by introducing additional categories in 2019. This year, pop star Olivia Rodrigo was named Artist of the Year and four-time Olympic gold medalist Simone Biles was selected as Athlete of the Year. The title of Heroes of the Year, previously known as “Guardians,” went to the scientists behind the mRNA covid-19 vaccine specifically Katalin Kariko, Barney Graham, Kizzmekia Corbett and Drew Weissman. Time named them “The Miracle Workers,” saying they “achieved a breakthrough of singular importance, introducing an innovative and highly effective vaccine platform, based on mRNA, that will impact our health and well-being far beyond this pandemic.”
Time was able to add new categories because the company is no longer part of a larger magazine conglomerate with competing titles that deeply covered sports and entertainment, Felsenthal previously told CNN Business. In 2018, Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff and his wife Lynne Benioff bought Time from Meredith Corp., which formerly owned other Time Inc. titles such as Sports Illustrated and Entertainment Weekly.
Unlike previous years, Time chose not to release a shortlist of contenders for Person of the Year.
Time announced Person of the Year on its own YouTube channel, produced by its own video division, Times Studios. That unveiling is in stark contrast to years past when Time would do the grand reveal on broadcast television, partnering with NBC. In 2020, Time announced the choices on a prime time special on NBC. Earlier years, the picks were revealed in the morning on “Today.”
Time is hosting an event Monday evening in New York to celebrate Time’s Person of the Year and its TIME100 community, a sign of a return to normalcy for publishers that were forced to cancel in-person events amid the pandemic and instead held virtual ones.
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