After PA Senate debate, broadcast morning news spent nearly as much time on John Fetterman's health as on policy issues
Correction (10/27/22): The chart in this piece originally cited the wrong data -- number of mentions rather than time counts -- and has been replaced.
Following the only scheduled debate between Pennsylvania U.S. Senate candidates John Fetterman and Mehmet Oz, morning broadcast news shows spent nearly the same amount of time talking about Fetterman’s health as the policy agendas of the candidates or the issues facing Pennsylvania voters.
Fetterman, Pennsylvania’s Democratic lieutenant governor, suffered a stroke in May. Five months into his recovery, he has some auditory processing issues that require him to use communications accommodations, such as closed captions, typical of other patients recovering from a stroke. Medical experts, including Fetterman’s own doctor, do not see any issue with his ability to campaign or hold public office.
Despite these facts, right-wing media have smeared Fetterman as being physically and mentally unfit to hold a Senate seat, and mainstream political reporters have reinforced the smear campaign by exoticizing Fetterman's condition. Unfortunately, the discourse on the broadcast morning shows further amplified this narrative in the wake of last night’s debate. Instead of providing adequate context around Fetterman's stroke recovery, broadcast morning shows on ABC, CBS, and NBC spent nearly the same amount of time or more scandalizing Fetterman’s speech as they did on the policy issues discussed during the debate.
As expected, Fetterman did have some auditory processing issues at the debate. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette spoke to several medical and speech experts about Fetterman's performance:
Brooke Lang, a speech language pathologist at Integrative Reconnective Aphasia Therapy in Canonsburg who treats people with aphasia all over the country through telemedicine, said: “He still has a ways to go, but I think he’s recovering very well. What he is showing is pretty typical.” She added, “He can absolutely continue to get better and improve if he works at it.”
She noted, “We tend to judge people based on how they communicate,” but in aphasia patients, “this is just trouble accessing language. These people have the same thoughts and ideas they always have.”
“In my opinion, he did very well,” said Dr. Sonia Sheth, of Northwestern Medicine Marianjoy Rehabilitation Hospital in suburban Chicago, who watched the debate. “He had his stroke less than one year ago and will continue to recover over the next year. He had some errors in his responses, but overall he was able to formulate fluent, thoughtful answers.”
Right-wing media have attempted to make Fetterman’s health a disqualifying issue – media outlets like NBC, ABC, and CBS should not fall in line with this cruel fiction.
Media Matters searched transcripts in the SnapStream video database for the October 26, 2022, editions of ABC’s Good Morning America, CBS’ Mornings, and NBC’s Today for any of the terms “Fetterman,” “Oz,” “Pennsylvania,” or “PA.”
We timed segments, which we defined as instances when the October 25, 2022, Pennsylvania gubernatorial debate between John Fetterman and Mehmet Oz was the stated topic of discussion or when we found significant discussion of the debate.
We also timed passing mentions, which we defined as instances when a single speaker in a multitopic segment mentioned the debate without another speaker engaging with the comment, and teasers, which we defined as instances when the anchor or host promoted a segment about the debate scheduled to air later in the broadcast.
We then reviewed all segments, mentions, and teasers for whether they included discussion or comments of “issues,” which we defined as any speech about Fetterman or Oz’s positions taken in the debate, or “health,” which we defined as any speech about Fetterman’s stroke, his debate performance within the context of his recovery, his use of assistive technology during the debate, or his cognitive ability during the debate.
We only timed the relevant speech in each segment, mention, or teaser. We rounded all times to the nearest minute.