A President's Legacy, With All Its Complications : NPR Public Editor Not all listeners hear the right mix, as NPR balances Bush plaudits and criticism

A President's Legacy, With All Its Complications

The flag-draped casket of former President George H.W. Bush is carried by a joint services military honor guard into St. Martin's Episcopal Church Thursday, Dec. 6, 2018, in Houston. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey) Mark Humphrey/AP hide caption

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The flag-draped casket of former President George H.W. Bush is carried by a joint services military honor guard into St. Martin's Episcopal Church Thursday, Dec. 6, 2018, in Houston. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

Mark Humphrey/AP

All world leaders and high-profile public figures leave behind complicated legacies, even the great ones. For three major deaths in a row (former President George H.W. Bush, Sen. John McCain and religious leader Billy Graham) the Ombudsman Office has heard from unhappy listeners who feel NPR's coverage has skewed toward the laudatory, while overlooking flaws in the person's legacy.

If you look back in the archives at NPR's coverage of Bush — as former CIA director, Reagan vice president and 41st president — I'm certain it would show that NPR explored at the time many more of the criticisms than it has in the days following his death last Friday. That's logical and appropriate. One of the functions of the free press is to hold the powerful accountable at the time of their governing.

Obituaries are different; they serve to put figures in a historical context. What may have seemed pertinent at the time is often less so in retrospect. The reverse is true, as well; to take just one example, Bush's bipartisan policy initiatives take on much more significance in a now politically polarized world, as does his fundamentally civil approach to the presidency and his personal relationships. Indeed, one implicit thread through many of the remembrances was a sharp contrast in demeanor between Bush and the current president.

And an obituary, more so than ongoing news coverage, also focuses on the person, not just the policies. It's appropriate to recognize those traits in an accounting of someone's life.

But obituaries should not become hagiographies, despite the inclination not to speak ill of the dead. The question becomes how NPR, or any news outlet, should portion out that coverage to accurately portray the broader context and not engage in what one listener called "historical amnesia."

The challenge is particularly relevant for NPR, which, due to radio newsmagazine time limits, doles out its coverage in bits and pieces that only the most dedicated listeners will hear in the entirety, or take the time to search out online. There's also a separate challenge of how to weave in criticisms, if at all, and not offend some listeners while offering live coverage of the person's funeral, as NPR did Wednesday. On the latter front I think NPR did a good job. And I respectfully disagree with those listeners who felt any critical mentions in any of the coverage were disrespectful.

In analyzing NPR's copious Bush reports in their entirety, I see more of the criticism than the NPR critics seem to acknowledge, and one major shortcoming.

One of the defining, and ugliest, moments of Bush's 1988 presidential campaign was the "Willie Horton" ad (which officially originated from an independent political action committee). NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates wrote in 2011 that the ad "showed a mug shot of a scowling black man in a big Afro, and a voice-over intoned that thanks to a furlough program like the one [Democratic candidate Michael] Dukakis supported, Horton was able to commit assault and rape while on a weekend leave."

NPR's online obituary for Bush referenced that episode, and Michel Martin raised it on the first day of coverage.

So did Lulu Garcia-Navarro the next day, in this good exchange with Bush's biographer (and Wednesday eulogist) Jon Meacham:

"GARCIA-NAVARRO: There is, of course, an instinct when people die to speak no ill. But his legacy was complicated. There are many black Americans today who remember him differently from others. He really pushed the war on drugs, which led to the mass incarceration of African-American men. He was the man who used Willie Horton to stoke racial fears. We only have about a minute left, but in his later conversations, did he ever look back at that legacy critically?

MEACHAM: He knew that he was not perfect. He knew that, as he once put it to me, politics is not a pure undertaking, not if you want to win. It's not. He would've resisted both those examples that you cite. But let's be very clear - George Herbert Walker Bush was an important American president. He was a decent human being. He was not perfect. He was a man of the arena. He did things to get power that we can look on with totally justified critical judgment. To my mind, we have to judge people on the totality of their lives. And what did he do with that power when he ultimately had it?"

On Day three, All Things Considered followed that with an interview about Bush's criminal justice legacy.

By contrast — and this is the one major hole I see in NPR's coverage — NPR was very slow off the mark in grappling with Bush's record responding to the HIV/AIDS crisis. It was briefly mentioned on Monday, but the first extended report was on Tuesday's All Things Considered; the online piece ran the same day. While the interview itself was a good one, it was too little, too late, most particularly for those who lost friends and family members in the crisis. It's important to remember, as interviewee Urvashi Vaid told listeners, that some 180,000 people died as a result of the AIDS epidemic.

NPR did not explore in any detail Bush's brief tenure as CIA director in the 1970s, choosing instead to focus on his presidency. NPR waited until today, nearly a week after his death, to report online about his lame-duck pardons of those involved in the Iran-Contra scandal. But in various interviews and reports, NPR dealt with his influence on the Supreme Court (especially his nomination of Clarence Thomas), the Persian Gulf War and its aftermath, and abortion.

I asked Terence Samuel, an NPR deputy managing editor, to assess how NPR did.

"I think it's the nature of funeral coverage on this scale to talk about people's accomplishments," he said. "That can feel laudatory, and when everybody is doing it, that can feel overly so. Did we do that to the exclusion of anything else? I would say no. But I would understand the criticism of people who felt we hadn't done enough on things such as his shortcomings, failings or mixed accomplishments."

"If I had to do it over again would we include the [Iran-Contra] pardons? Yes," he said. But he added that he does not feel it was a major mistake not to do so (today's report came after Samuel and I spoke).

Overall, he said, he felt the coverage, and in particular in the weekend newsmagazines when the news broke "covered everything we needed to cover," particularly his achievements and accomplishments. "Then you tell the 'on the other hand' story," he said. "It sounds like we're picking one over the other, but we're not."

He added, "Anybody who said we could have done more, faster, I agree with them." But NPR was going as fast as it could, he said.

I'd add, there were other major stories to cover, from Paris riots to partisan maneuvering in Wisconsin, and NPR made no major mistakes. Overall, I think NPR acquitted itself well. But when the next major death comes, it would be well-served to do a quick check on whose perspective might be missing.