The deaths of prominent political figures are pivotal moments in which their legacies take shape - a process that plays out almost exclusively in the news media.

Late last year, the United States witnessed two such moments - August saw the passing of former senator and presidential candidate John McCain; and George H W Bush, the 41st US President, died in November.

In both the cases, the tributes that dominated the news cycle over the week that followed ranged from the admiring to the sentimental. The tone partly explainable by the timing - in the Donald Trump era of hyper-partisanship and government shutdowns, the memories of moderate, bipartisan Republicans appear to have triggered feelings of nostalgia in many journalists.

For many media critics, however, American audiences were being denied the full picture, especially in the case of the Bush presidency of 1989-1993.

"The coverage of George Bush Senior in his death really emphasised personal qualities at the expense of policy," Jeet Heer, contributing editor at the American current affairs magazine The New Republic, told The Listening Post. "It has an effect of depoliticising Bush and making him this kind of generic lovable grandfather. You don't really get a sense that this man was president."

When the media eulogies did address Bush's record, they focussed predominantly on the positives of his term in the White House, such as his presiding over a peaceful ending to the Cold War.

Other, controversial episodes in Bush's tenure were, however, absent from many of the obituaries. Episodes that many outside the media mainstream, and outside the US, have not forgotten.

Amy Goodman is cofounder and lead anchor of the independent, left-wing news channel Democracy Now!, whose critical coverage of Bush's legacies in Panama and during the First Gulf War stood in stark contrast to the majority of the networks.

"[Bush] comes into office and he very soon afterwards invades Panama. The US said they were going after Manuel Noriega ... who had been a CIA asset. What they ended up doing [in the process] was killing thousands. And that cannot be ignored."

For Vijay Prashad, an Indian historian specialising in the Global South, the true human cost of the First Gulf War, launched by Bush against Saddam Hussein's Iraq in 1991, was another glaring omission: "The United States bombed Iraq mercilessly, started a process of destroying that country. They used illegal depleted uranium in their bombs and produced generations of young children born with cancer. If you don't add that into the legacy of George H W Bush, I don't know who you're talking about."

Jeff Greenfield is a veteran US journalist and former political commentator for the networks ABC, CBS and CNN. For him, the positive, even nostalgic tone of the coverage was a comparison with what has come since.

"I think part of what explains the relative quietness was the contrast between the Iraq War as George H W Bush fought it in Kuwait and what happened with his son. What Bush did not do, the elder, was to pursue that war into Baghdad. There was a sense of restraint. The second thing is that the old Latin expression 'do not speak ill of the dead' applies just in general to the media."

The expression 'De mortuis nil nisi bonum', which translates literally as 'Of the dead, say nothing but good', has been an accepted part of death etiquette in the West for centuries. But is it appropriate as a principle for journalists as they assess a political legacy?

According to Amy Goodman, it's a rule that privileges some deaths, those of the powerful, over others: "I agree that it is very hard to speak ill of the dead but we have to remember the dead on all sides. Yes, we have to remember George H W Bush. [But] we also have to remember the victims of his policies."


Jeet Heer - Contributing editor, The New Republic
Jeff Greenfield - Political analyst & author
Vijay Prashad - Author, 'The Darker Nations'
Amy Goodman - Cofounder & host, Democracy Now!

Source: Al Jazeera