Some people find it a little shocking that TIME magazine choose Pope Francis over Edward Snowden as its person of the year. The title is supposedly given to the person who best represents the news of the year, which comes down to both making a lot of headlines and having historical significance.
And yes, there is a strong argument to be made for Snowden, ahead of other popular candidates on the public poll like Bashar al-Assad, Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, and Miley Cyrus. After all the NSA leaker has dominated headlines since June, exposing the degree to which America spies on Americans and everyone else and spurring a global conversation about Internet privacy, though it’s not clear how much his leaks will actually change the world.
But there is a strong argument to be made for the Pope as well.
There are signs that Francis, whose papacy began on March 13, is bringing about major changes at the Catholic Church, that millennia-old institution that includes 1.2 billion members today. Among them, the pope has criticised modern capitalism, refused to judge gay priests, set up a commission to advise him on protecting children from pedophile priests, and condemned religious fundamentalism.
This is in addition to his sudden popularity, with the public lapping up stories like his announcing he once worked as a bouncer, him phoning up all sorts of random people, and him accepting a gift of an old car. It’s certainly a change from the reserved, bookish Pope Benedict.
There may, however, be a much more pragmatic reason behind TIME’s selection of Francis over Snowden.
Snowden, who appears in only a handful of photographs, has been covered to death, and is unpopular with very many people, is not likely to to improve newsstand sales, especially at a middle of the road publication like TIME. Pope Francis, on the other hand, has an ready-built audience of 1.2 billion Catholics around the world, with early indications are that his popularity even leading lapsed Catholics to return to the pews, and many more people who are happy to commemorate exciting developments in the Vatican. In the realpolitik world of modern magazine publishing, these are factors that can’t be ignored.
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