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July 14, 2009

Michael, McNair, McNamara: Balancing Truth With Respect for the Dead

In the wake of the longest stretch of major celebrity deaths in recent memory, a couple of questions keep cropping up in media and culture: Is it wrong to speak ill of the dead? And how should the general public and media react when people die who have embarrassing details in their background?

That question in particular has been asked about three celebrities who have passed in the past month, starting with Michael Jackson, who in addition to being one of the biggest musical stars of all time was accused multiple times of child molestation and had a pattern miles long of weird and inexplicable public behavior.

Steve McNair, the former Super Bowl quarterback who was shot and killed on the July 4 weekend, was having an affair with a 20-year-old woman who was not his wife, one who appears to have murdered him before taking her own life. And former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, who died at the age of 93, helped preside over U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War, a conflict he admitted decades later was unwinnable from the beginning.

No one is all good or all bad, of course, and in that sense, just about everyone who ever died has left a "mixed legacy." I tend to think in such cases as these we should err on the side of respect for the dead, and comfort for their relatives, while at the same time avoiding whitewashing things they did that were truly terrible.

In Jackson's case, I felt the media coverage even though there was way, way too much of it did a mostly good job balancing respect for Jackson's musical achievements with mentions of his legal problems, as well as his skin-bleaching, baby-dangling and other strange aspects of his life. Everyone, after all, knew the whole story anyway.

However, some of his fans simply behaved as though the final 15 years of Jackson's life never happened. Meanwhile, Al Sharpton's memorial service message to Jackson's children to tell them "there was nothing strange about your daddy," was a sweet thing to say, but it was also totally, utterly, absurdly false.

As for McNair, it was an even stranger case, as the quarterback had enjoyed as sterling a public reputation as any player in the NFL. It was enough of a shock that he died, even without the scandalous circumstances.

I heard one talk show caller in Philadelphia last week scream about how no one should feel bad about McNair, because he wasn't a leader, and he wasn't worth mourning, and how dare his ex-coach and ex-teammates say that he was when he was cheating on his wife. As if these former players, in shock in the hours after their former teammate was suddenly, brutally killed at the age of 36, were going to publicly rip him.

I also don't understand the outcry from multiple sports bloggers that ESPN in particular isn't reporting on some of the seedier aspects of the case looking into the mistress and her ex-boyfriend's MySpace pages, and the like  probably because ESPN has a financial relationship with the NFL that it doesn't wish to jeopardize. I don't buy this for a second, mostly because 1) the ESPN NFL reporters aren't gossip columnists or murder investigators; 2) the NFL/ESPN relationship didn't prevent massive coverage of Michael Vick and other recent league scandals; and 3) they're all too busy following the Brett Favre story anyway.

My fellow fans of Minnesota teams will remember a similar dilemma when Kirby Puckett died in 2006. Sure, he was the most beloved athlete in the state's history by a wide margin, but he had disappointed everyone a few years earlier when revelations about his affairs, as well as an accusation that he assaulted a woman, became public.

As for McNamara, his legacy is even more mixed. He helped preside over a war in which tens of thousands of Americans were killed, knowing all the while that it was a mistake.

McNamara was a complicated and conflicted man throughout his long career and life, which was covered through in-depth interviews with the man himself in Errol Morris's amazing 2003 documentary The Fog of War. McNamara did many good things in his life, among them working to prevent nuclear war and it's certainly sad that he's dead. But for those who cannot forgive him for his role in Vietnam, I cannot blame them.

Except for extreme exceptions, the fairest way to react to the death of an important American is to tell the full story of their life, finding a tasteful balance between respect for their memory and for the truth.


2009 North Star Writers Group. May not be republished without permission.


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