High-profile political reporters are digging in on their efforts to sow doubt about John Fetterman’s ongoing stroke recovery, and it’s offensive. “I was stunned to see how the coverage of his use of captions was so riddled with ableism,” Maria Town, the president of the American Association of People with Disabilities, told Buzzfeed News. “The interview was deeply upsetting to see.”
But despite the immediate outcry from disability advocates and people with a basic sense of decency, the major media campaign to turn Fetterman’s use of closed captioning into a major campaign issue continues, and it’s not just the Fox News crowd. NBC, in particular, is going hard to defend its initial framing of reporter Dasha Burns’ interview with Fetterman.
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“We were happy to accommodate closed captioning,” Burns tweeted, defensively. “Our reporting did not and should not comment on fitness for office. This is for voters to decide. What we do push for as reporters is transparency. It’s our job. Fetterman sat down and answered our questions. That’s his job.”
Burns got a lot of feedback to that. Because come on, now, you made a huge deal about the accommodations Fetterman needed, including tweeting, “Unlike any political interview I’ve ever done,” and only after the fact including important context about stroke recovery, which is that Fetterman’s auditory processing issues do not indicate cognitive problems.
Burns was also guilty of making a classic national-reporter mistake: She presented Fetterman’s use of captioning as new information, a big bombshell you had to go to NBC News to get. In reality, he’s made absolutely no secret of it, as a local publication made clear: “The Tribune-Review found 10 published stories, including ones from Pittsburgh publications and national outlets, that mention Fetterman informing reporters he needed closed captioning to help him understand their questions, including his first post-stroke interview on July 20.”
But Burns wasn’t the only NBC/MSNBC reporter to dig in on this issue.
“Let me ask you this, to play devil’s advocate,” Andrew Mitchell said to former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe. “How is your argument that the bigger issue is keeping control of the Senate, how is that different from Republicans saying in Georgia, well, the issue is we have to keep control of the Senate, against what they view as a Democratic radical agenda, and defending electing Herschel Walker?”
This is interesting, because Mitchell wasn’t specific about what she thought might sway Republicans from backing Walker. It could have been that he is running on an extreme anti-abortion platform—in line with his party—while his record of paying for a girlfriend’s abortion and pressuring her to get another abortion becomes public, along with his multiple secret children.
That is a very different issue from having difficulty with auditory processing, when it comes to what moral and ethical compromises a party is willing to make to keep control of the Senate.
Mitchell could also have been delicately hinting that Walker, a former longtime NFL running back, seems to have some of the symptoms of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a disease that has been posthumously diagnosed in more than 320 former NFL players. That's a tricky issue, because it can only be definitively diagnosed posthumously, and no one wants to overstep. But when Mitchell raises Walker in a discussion of Fetterman’s (likely temporary) disability, it’s … intriguing.
But if (emphasis on if) Walker did have CTE as opposed to being an incoherent liar with a violent past for non-medical reasons, it would still not be the same thing as Fetterman needing to read questions before answering them, when it comes to what moral and ethical compromises a party is willing to make to keep control of the Senate.
NBC and MSNBC reporters have an incentive to support their network and their colleague’s reporting, though it’s unfortunate that they’re putting that above good reporting and respectful treatment of disability issues. Fox News, on the other hand …
As if Dasha Burns wouldn’t have been gleefully all over it if she had the least pretext to insinuate that Fetterman might have been reading his answers.
The Fox News chyrons took the ugliness to the next level:
Sean Hannity described Fetterman as “severely disabled” and “not mentally capable of debating.” On Fox Business, Maria Bartiromo asked, “I mean, how is he going to make decisions about Pennsylvania and fight for the Pennsylvanian people, if in fact he needs to have a device alongside him?” Surely not a device! Like we all don’t basically carry pocket computers with us.
Fetterman can, of course, make good decisions and speak for himself—not only did he spend an hour taking questions from the PennLive editorial board on Wednesday, but Rebecca Traister recently reported that Fetterman’s wildly popular social media strategy over the summer, and in some cases the exact words and even the memes, came directly from the candidate.
John Fetterman is recovering from a stroke out in the open, showing us what he can do (read questions and speak powerfully about issues of importance to voters) and what he can’t, yet (consistently process auditory information). It’s shameful that so many prominent media figures want to focus on everything but what Fetterman and his opponent, Mehmet Oz, have to say about the important stuff.
The AP left a key piece of information out of its depiction of warm moment between Oz and supporter
Regardless of whether voters think Fetterman's stroke is an issue, journalists decided it was