Mainstream outlets manufacture Fetterman’s stroke recovery into a scandal

Journalists act like they’re neutral observers in discussing the optics of Fetterman’s recovery, even as their questions adopt a conservative framework

Mainstream media outlets and pundits are responding to a recent NBC interview with Pennsylvania Senate candidate John Fetterman by manufacturing a false narrative about his health by focusing on optics rather than substance. By framing questions around his health as opinions that an abstracted voter may have, they are creating an environment that makes it more likely that real voters could adopt those very concerns.

Fetterman suffered a stroke in May and has been recovering since then. In July, his doctor determined he would be healthy enough to perform his duties if elected, an opinion supported by other medical assessments. Fetterman currently has impaired auditory processing abilities as a result of the stroke, and he required the use of closed captioning during the interview so he could read the interviewer's questions before responding. As NBC noted, experts on stroke recovery have found that there is nothing about Fetterman’s condition that suggests any cognitive impairment, a conclusion shared by other professionals. Indeed, it is common post-stroke for patients to use closed captions or other auditory aides. There is also recent precedent for stroke survivors serving in the U.S. Senate.

But with midterm elections looming, political reporters need a narrative. Narrative requires tension, conflict, and uncertainty, and simply reporting that Fetterman appears to be recovering at a steady pace doesn’t cut it. That’s not to say that political reporters make up facts or sources — as conservatives regularly and falsely allege — but just to acknowledge that news is a product that must be sold to viewers and readers. Controversy attracts attention, and where controversy doesn’t exist, the perception of controversy can take its place. This is where the meta-critique of “optics” comes in, as a CNN panel from Wednesday afternoon illustrated.

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Citation From the October 12, 2022, edition of CNN's Inside Politics with John King

After airing an informative interview with Dr. Sanjay Gupta about how nothing in the NBC interview suggested Fetterman would be unable to serve in the Senate, anchor John King turned to a panel of political reporters to weigh in. What followed was a discussion about optics that ventriloquized Pennsylvania voters and completely ignored the explanation that Gupta had just offered.

“When you have a void of information and you don't fill it as the candidate that's running, other people will,” The New York Times’ Zolan Kanno-Youngs said. 

It is true that Fetterman hasn’t released any additional medical records, but he said on Wednesday evening that the doctor’s note he previously released still sufficiently explains his condition and if that changed he would update the public. More broadly, Fetterman has been remarkably open about his recovery, presenting himself to his would-be constituents with warts and all.

CNN’s Kasie Hunt, who noted that she had a brain tumor removed recently, echoed Kanno-Young’s point. “I mean, look, it raises a lot of questions,” Hunt said. “I think the risk is that it makes it seem like they're hiding something.” Hunt here isn’t directly accusing Fetterman’s campaign of hiding something, just saying it looks that way from the point of view of an imagined viewer.

CBS’ Ed O’Keefe offered the same superficial analysis.

Although O’Keefe is on the surface just asking a question, embedded in his framing is the unstated assumption that there is something seriously wrong with Fetterman’s ability to serve as senator. He doesn’t come out and say that — he outsources it to an abstracted audience, elevating a concern that might not otherwise be on the mind of an actually existing voter. 

Former New York Times reporter and author Jonathan Martin did the same thing.

Josh Kraushaar, a conservative writer turned mainstream reporter at Axios, removed “without captioning” from his tweet to further put his thumb on the scale, even while superficially not taking a position.

The Hill covered the interview as well, saying it was “raising fresh questions about Pennsylvania Senate candidate John Fetterman’s health.” Similarly, The New York Daily News said the segment was “raising new questions about his health just weeks before Election Day.”

Again, these are not direct claims about Fetterman’s health that can be addressed or contested by the candidate. They are amorphous vibe-checks, meant to signal to the reader that something is wrong with Fetterman without actually spelling it out.

It’s worth noting that prior to the interview, 61% of Pennsylvania registered voters believed that Fetterman was healthy enough to serve as senator, according to a recent Fox News poll. It’s possible that number could change as a result of the NBC segment, but reporters may well be mistaken to assume that voters will perceive it in the most negative light possible. And the faux-neutral style of reporting that raises questions about Fetterman’s health could have an effect on public perception.

Many outlets have noted that both NBC News’ presentation and the reactions to it have been ableist and discriminatory. What can sometimes get lost though is that ableist discrimination isn’t wrong because it’s mean or rude, though it obviously is both. It’s wrong because it risks denying a person an opportunity that they are qualified to do, based on reasons that are immaterial and pretextual. That is clearly the case with mainstream reporters pretending to be neutral observers even as they signal to their audience that Fetterman is unwell and not transparent. 

Although most conservative responses were far more extreme, the mainstream framing implicitly adopted the right’s underlying analysis — that Fetterman is unqualified to serve and is hiding it from voters. Multiple conservative outlets omitted crucial context from their tweets promoting the interview, namely that Fetterman understood every question that was asked of him with the help of closed captions.

Conservative media have a clear partisan incentive to frame Fetterman’s recovery in the most negative way possible. Mainstream outlets that follow their lead are not acting neutrally, even as they are — on the surface — just asking questions. They are manufacturing a narrative, which may create tension but does nothing to inform the public and detracts from the real issues facing Pennsylvanians.