On May 13, Democratic Senate candidate John Fetterman had a stroke that almost killed him. In the months since, the lieutenant governor of Pennsylvania—currently running against celebrity doctor and New Jersey resident Dr. Mehmet Oz—has been transparent about what his ongoing recovery has entailed. A New York magazine profile that published on Monday explained that the interview between Fetterman and journalist Rebecca Traister took place over Google Meet, “because the stroke had made it difficult for him to process what he hears,” and “the video chat has closed-captioning technology that allowed him to read questions in real time.”
In the days since, taking a page from the Oz campaign’s especially nasty smears mocking Fetterman’s weight and recovery, cable media has chimed in, too, to give Oz an assist. On Wednesday, CNN ran a segment treating Fetterman’s use of captions, which he’s spoken openly about for months, as a sort of “gotcha” hit piece exposing a disqualifying impairment. NBC ran a piece somehow equating Fetterman’s use of reasonable accommodations for his recovery with revelations that Herschel Walker’s entire campaign rooted in Christian, “pro-life” family values is a lie. Referring to Fetterman’s use of captions in interviews, a CBS News journalist asked, “Will Pennsylvanians be comfortable with someone representing them who had to conduct a TV interview this way?”
Other outlets have since picked up on the story, “outing” Fetterman with interview clips of him appearing to stutter. And one NBC reporter claimed that “in small talk” before her interview with Fetterman, “it wasn’t clear he understood what I was saying.” Last month, without any evidence, Fox News’ Tucker Carlson claimed Fetterman is “brain damaged” and “can barely speak.”
The media coverage of Fetterman’s condition has descended into a circus, just four weeks out from the election, and, as the group Real Doctors Against Oz has pointed out, targeting the candidate specifically for (temporarily) needing captions is pretty unabashedly ableist. The group tweeted on Tuesday that every year, plenty of doctors taking board exams use “assistance with keyboard tasks, audio rendition,” and “extended testing/break time.” These doctors “are no less valuable or competent.”
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“As John and our campaign have made extremely clear, from John’s first interview back on the trail in July, through recently, and everywhere in between, he uses closed captioning in interviews to be precise and avoid missing words,” Joe Calvello, Fetterman’s communications director, told Jezebel in a statement. “As we’ve said over and over again, John is healthy and he also still has a lingering auditory processing issue that his doctors expect will go away. John has already released a letter from his cardiologist and put out a candid letter directly from himself about his stroke.” He continued, “Unfortunately for Dr. Oz and the pathetic Republicans who are desperately rooting against his recovery, John is getting better every day and he is going to win this race to be Pennsylvania’s next Senator.”
Fetterman’s campaign has emphasized that, according to doctors, the candidate is set to make a full recovery; in recent weeks, he’s been campaigning across the state with no problem to sizable crowds. Other journalists who have interviewed Fetterman recently have tweeted about having no issues making small talk or any other conversation with him. “Maybe this reporter is just bad at small talk,” one prominent journalist tweeted about the aforementioned NBC reporter who claimed Fetterman struggled to converse with her.
Traister, who interviewed Fetterman for New York, claims his “comprehension is not at all impaired.” Based on her extensive conversations with him post-stroke, she said, “He understands everything, it’s just that he reads it (which requires extra acuity, I’d argue) and responds in real time. It’s a hearing/auditory processing challenge.”
It’s also nothing if not ironic that while mainstream media and Fetterman’s Republican opponent, a literal doctor, incessantly fearmonger about Fetterman’s condition, a Senate candidate a few states over very possibly struggles with CTE. In Walker’s own words, he’s “not that smart,” and in May, stuttered that the solution to gun violence was to “get a department that’s looking at young men, that’s looking at young women, that’s looking at social media.” Two sitting senators are pushing 90; credible reporting from just earlier this year made a strong case for questioning whether Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.)—noted Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) hugger—is mentally fit to serve.
But I’d argue the most unsettling aspect of the media circus is its bizarre air of self-righteousness—the insinuation that this coverage is necessary because Fetterman is somehow being dishonest about his condition and what he continues to struggle with, just months after a stroke.
“Recovering from a stroke in public isn’t easy. But in January, I’m going to be much better—and Dr. Oz will still be a fraud,” Fetterman wrote in a short, simple tweet on Wednesday morning. He told Traister that “running for the Senate, in the biggest race in the country, and having to recover at the same time is unprecedented,” and that he spent summer in recovery before physically returning to the campaign trail in the fall. “Standing up in front of 3,000 people and having to talk without a teleprompter or anything? That is the most pure example of transparency there is,” he added.
Fetterman’s wife, Gisele, even opened up to Traister about how their family—including their three young kids—has experienced the aftermath of his stroke while on the campaign trail together. “It’s been a lot for them to process, and I hope they don’t need too much therapy—but we all need therapy, so it’s OK. … We’re no different than every family that has to go through these health crises. The difference is that my family had to go through this publicly.”
It’s understandable for the public and electorate to be interested in the health and condition of someone running for a high-level public office; but it’s clear that Fetterman has little issue campaigning. More than that, he’s spoken honestly and transparently about every aspect of his recovery—and that’s certainly more than his opponent, and a lot of cable news pundits, can say.