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NBC News helped mainstream conservative media conspiracy theories about Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton’s health by devoting an entire article to a "coughing fit" she had. The report -- while widely criticized by members of the media -- was pushed by right-wing media figures who for years have led the charge in spreading debunked conspiracy theories about Clinton’s health.
On September 5, NBC News reported that Clinton suffered from a "coughing fit" on the campaign trail in an article titled, “Hillary Clinton Fights Back Coughing Attack,” writing:
Hillary Clinton struggled to fight back a coughing fit while campaigning in Cleveland, Ohio, on Monday.
The former secretary of state has suffered from coughing fits at times throughout the Democratic presidential primary.
However the frog in Clinton's throat on Monday was one of the most aggressive she's had during her 2016 run and left her almost unable to finish her remarks.
Clinton’s coughing was also brought up on broadcast morning shows on September 6, including NBC’s Today, ABC’s Good Morning America, and CBS This Morning, where CBS correspondent Nancy Cordes claimed Clinton’s coughing from seasonal allergies “got the better of her.”
The NBC News report was embraced by right-wing media figures, who have spent years pushing conspiracy theories about Clinton’s health. The Drudge Report linked to the NBC News story on its banner, blaring the headline: “GETTING WORSE: CLINTON COUGH VIOLENTLY RETURNS,” adding Clinton’s “HEALTH STATUS UP IN THE AIR.” The story was also tweeted out by conservative media figures, with Fox Business host Lou Dobbs writing that “it’s time for answers” about Clinton’s health:
2 major coughing fits in 1 day: one at a rally, one with reporters. RT "Hillary Clinton Fights Back Coughing Attack" https://t.co/E0jVchN91e
— Monica Crowley (@MonicaCrowley) September 5, 2016
— Lou Dobbs (@LouDobbs) September 6, 2016
The piece, however, was widely derided by mainstream media figures declaring “this ain’t news” and asking if NBC “seriously ran this story?”:
— Kai Ryssdal (@kairyssdal) September 6, 2016
They seriously ran this story? https://t.co/9UtBg7LV6W
— Matthew Yglesias (@mattyglesias) September 6, 2016
— Mark Lazerus (@MarkLazerus) September 6, 2016
— Jonathan Alter (@jonathanalter) September 6, 2016
As James Poniewozik, The New York Times’ TV critic, points out, the fact Clinton coughed is “news only [because] of a context of rumor, which NBC is indulging.” The NBC News report sent a dog-whistle to right-wing conspiracy theorists and gave legitimacy to their ridiculous claims that Clinton is suffering from serious health problems. For years, right-wing media have obsessed over Clinton’s bodily functions, including coughing fits and using the restroom.
More dangerously, mainstream media have also hyped these conspiracies, even when their own outlets have debunked them. Even NBC Nightly News previously dispelled the “conspiracy theories” surrounding Clinton’s health.
Media figures have recently criticized the right-wing figures promoting these myths. CNN’s Brian Stelter said it “does a disservice” to the audience “by peddling these conspiracy theories.” Michael Smerconish argued “it’s unhealthy for us as a society and electorate to all play armchair physician and go on and make some diagnoses,” especially since these claims have been debunked numerous times.