Love that list, where Courtney's influential

July 04, 1996|By Irene Lacher | Irene Lacher,LOS ANGELES TIMES

It's a good bet that biologist E. O. Wilson, traditionalist William Bennett and rocker Courtney Love don't make each other's party lists.

But there's one dance card where they all reign supreme: Time magazine's recent list of the United States' 25 most influential people.

So maybe Love reigns a little less supreme than some, judging from the talk radio hoo-ha over her bid for that particular throne.

"Here's our rationale," says Time managing editor Walter Isaacson, who sired the magazine's first annual list. "Nowadays if you're looking for someone who articulates a somewhat angry but very interesting feminist attitude, you tend to look to rock music. You look to rock, and you get Courtney Love."

Wanna fight about it? Great.

That's just what the architects of "100 Best" and "25 Greatest" magazine lists have in mind. Indeed, a little controversy can be good for the soul -- as well as newsstand sales, because everybody loves a list, say the list makers.

Just look at how ubiquitous they are -- there's Money magazine's 300 best places to live, Newsweek's up-and-coming over-class 100, U.S. News & World Report's 20 hottest careers, People's 50 most beautiful people. The list goes on and on, natch.

"I think their arbitrariness is part of what makes them appealing," says Mark Harris, a senior editor of list-happy Entertainment Weekly.

"Who are we to say who the hundred most powerful people in entertainment are? But any kind of ranked list in particular gives people a wonderful jumping-off point for an argument."

Some lists are more argument-worthy than others. After all, how could one debate the granddaddy ranking of them all, the Fortune 500, which has been sizing up America's biggest corporations for 40 years?

If some lists are more quantifiable than others, some are more reportable than others. When Entertainment Weekly does its ranking of the 100 most powerful people in Hollywood, its reporters beat the industry's bushes for nominations. But when it comes to such intangibles as the 50 greatest directors of all time, a somewhat different methodology is used.

"It's a lot of debate around the table, and a lot of thrown coffee cups, and a lot of heated arguments and rough drafts with names crossed off," Harris says.

Not surprisingly, that method can yield more fireworks from readers.

The best-directors issue "generated more mail than any single story we ever covered," Harris said. "And a hell of a lot of the mail was, how could you not put William Wyler on that list? And a number of people complained that Jerry Lewis was on the list."

Jerry Lewis?

"Any time we get that kind of volume or intensity of response, we think that's great news."

Not everyone thinks the proliferation of lists is great news, regarding it as gimmicky journalism.

Dumbing down

Media watcher Bryce Nelson believes lists pose another problem: The pop packaging of information can dumb down a serious publication, striking at the heart of its credibility. Nelson, chairman of the University of Southern California's graduate journalism program, chastised Time magazine for joining the scramble for public attention.

"It's the kind of sales-oriented journalism that would have made [Time founder] Henry Luce turn over in his grave," Nelson says. "It sells magazines, and it crowds out more important, serious journalism, but if more people read, editors feel they can justify it."

On the other hand, Time launched its gimmicky Man of the Year under Luce.

And Isaacson, who became editor earlier this year, believes his list is right in sync with Luce's founding principles: "It's an interesting way to look at new ideas and events through the people who influence them or make them. It wasn't a trivial list, but one where we looked at influential people and influential ideas."

So if even the sober Time is taking a tip from David Letterman's Top 10, does that mean the '90s is the Top List Decade? Unclear, given the mushrooming of lists during the '70s heyday of erstwhile New York magazine editor Clay Felker.

Harris believes lists are a sign of the competitive times.

"We live in a time where Nielsen ratings and weekend box office grosses are a casual topic of discussion and not just in the industry. It's fun to do a snapshot of a horse race, and these lists reflect a taste for that. Critics of this would say that complicated issues are very easily reduced to who won, who lost."

But sometimes, Harris says, the winners and losers need to be told, especially in Hollywood, where power brokers take power lists very seriously.

"I'd hate to see everything reduced to that, but when you cover the entertainment industry, you're dealing with people who are invested in saying they're winners, no matter what.

"They don't say, 'And the winner is ' when the Oscar is handed out anymore. Well, duh, there are four losers."

Pub Date: 7/04/96

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