Who Should Be TIME’s 2011 Person of the Year? Our Panel Sounds Off

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As the seasons rise and fall and the calendar pages fall away, the news cycle continues to churn without fail. And with each new year comes a new cast of characters; new words on the page. But of utmost important is to respect where we’ve come from.

Which is why, each year since 1927, TIME has attempted to take the measure of the year, to tap into the zeitgeist and feature the person who, according to TIME’s founder Henry Luce, has most influenced the news – for better or for ill – throughout the past year, with a bit of forward thinking, too.

(VOTE NOW: Who Should Be TIME’s Person of the Year 2011?)

But in a year that’s shown so many stories of triumph and tragedy from every corner of the world, that’s a tall order. So TIME decided to tap some of the top minds in politics, law, comedy, news, and arts, looking outside our boardroom for a little inspiration, hosting six prominent panelists to share their thoughts.

Their thoughts were as diverse as their interests and challenged our views.  But two schools of thought rose about the rest. Steve Jobs emerged as a popular favorite, as did the Occupy Wall Street protesters. Who did each panelist choose?

Jemal Countess / Getty

Brian Williams, a longstanding staple at each year’s Person of the Year panel discussion, kicked off the selection process with a poignant reflection on Steve Jobs’ influence. “Not only did he change the world, but he gave us that spirit again that something was possible, that you could look at a piece of glass or plastic and move your finger, that’s outlandish… may he rest in peace,” Williams said.

Though Jobs would indeed be a contentious choice, a first in the magazine’s history: “We’ve never actually chosen a dead person,” TIME Managing Editor Rick Stengel noted. But fellow panelists supported Williams’ choice. Chef Mario Batali said, “I’m definitely a part of the fact and the belief that smartphones, the cell phone with photographic capability, has changed the world as much as the Bible has.”

(PHOTOS: Steve Jobs in a Private Light)

Jesse Eisenberg, who looks strikingly like last year’s Person of the Year Mark Zuckerberg, led off with the other favorite: protesters both home and abroad. “The major shifts globally and domestically have been made by individuals that have formed together to resist, reject and often times even topple leaders. They’ve been movements of populism.” SNL funnyman Seth Meyers agreed: “I do think that Angry People are the Person of the Year because I think they’re right to be angry.” There’s an “unfair binary” felt throughout the world, Eisenberg noted, as the panel discussed whether the 99% or the 1% would be better suited for a cover image.

Anita Hill, a crusader whose spirit of protest has seen a resurgence this year, promoted her position as the panel’s only woman to invoke a few key females that have shaped this year’s news. “Social justice and bridging inequalities isn’t necessarily a spirit captured by Steve Jobs,” she noted in nominating both Israa Abdel Fattah – the Egyptian “Facebook Girl” – and Consumer Financial Protection Bureau creator Elizabeth Warren.

A man who wouldn’t see eye-to-eye with Warren, tax advocate Grover Norquist, did agree with Hill’s nomination for a spirit of rebellion. Norquist, who represented the political sphere on the panel, explained his nomination of perhaps the most notable catalyst of the year – Mohammed Bouazizi, a man who, like Jobs, also happens to be deceased. “He just wanted to sell fruit and the government was interfering with his ability to do that,” Norquist explained.

(PHOTOS: Drama on Tahrir Square)

Jemal Countess / Getty

A conversation of who’s done good this past year then took a turn for the worse. Should TIME choose an “evil” person? “Who’s had the largest effect on the planet without us really paying attention… the entire banking industry and their disregard for the people that they’re supposed to be working for,” Batali proposed. Or Mother Nature? “She’s just not that into us,” Meyers said. “Weather has been a huge part of our newscasts,” Williams admitted.

Or how about the baddest of them all? There was no shortage of news out of Pakistan in May when Osama bin Laden was killed. And the nomination of bin Laden, Williams said, would bestow an implied honor on the Navy SEALs and all members of the military who are fighting American wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. “Love the war or hate the war, they believe they are doing this for everyone we know, so in their name… if we were to nominate a bad guy, that would be [bin Laden].”

For good or for evil, keep tuned to TIME.com throughout the month as we continue deliberations. We’ll soon release our poll to solicit who you think should be our 2011 Person of the Year. And the official issue will be unveiled in mid-December.

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