Update (10/13/22): This piece has been updated with additional information.
Following an NBC interview with Democratic Pennsylvania Senate nominee John Fetterman which covered his use of closed captioning after a stroke, some mainstream political journalists made comments that were ableist and otherwise lacked context, mirroring attacks on the candidate in right-wing media.
Fetterman suffered a stroke in May, but he has been recovering and says he is running a “normal” campaign. However, due to some lingering auditory-processing issues he deals with from the stroke, he requires closed captioning during interviews so he can read the questions as they are asked. This is not unusual; Fetterman is now among the tens of millions of Americans who rely on workplace accommodations to perform their job. As The Washington Post reported, neurological experts “noted that closed captions are a common tool for people with auditory processing or hearing issues, conditions which have nothing to do with overall intelligence” or cognitive issues.
His usage of closed captioning was center stage during the NBC Nightly News interview. Leading into the interview, NBC reporter Dasha Burns focused on the usage of Fetterman’s accommodation, saying, “Fetterman's campaign required closed-captioning technology for this interview to essentially read our questions as we asked them, and, Lester, in small talk before the interview without captioning, it wasn't clear he was understanding our conversation.”
Buzzfeed News reported that disability advocates expressed shock and dismay at how much the NBC interview exoticized Fetterman’s use of closed captioning:
“I was stunned to see how the coverage of his use of captions was so riddled with ableism,” said Maria Town, the president and CEO of the American Association of People with Disabilities. “The interview was deeply upsetting to see.”
Disability activist Charis Hill told BuzzFeed News they were so upset at Burns’s questions and the editors’ framing of Fetterman’s responses — leaving in moments of silence that showed Fetterman reading, for example — that they couldn’t finish watching the interview. Hill called on NBC to apologize for “the overt discrimination they just put on air.”
“The way Burns handled that interview will only worsen attitudes and violence towards disabled people in a time when virtual accommodations are being removed left and right after they were implemented overnight in 2020,” Hill said.
Eric Buehlmann, deputy executive director for public policy at the National Disability Rights Network, said he watched the interview having himself suffered a traumatic brain injury when he was in college. Buehlmann also has a son with auditory processing issues similar to Fetterman’s.
“As the discussion was occurring in the interview the other day, I'm like, Yeah, this happens to people and people deal with this, and this is a reality of life for a number of people,” Buehlmann said. “So it shouldn't be used as a stigmatizing tool, or something that needs to, quote-unquote, disqualify someone from being a senator.”
The NBC interview was not the first to cover Fetterman’s usage of closed captioning. Rebecca Traister profiled him for New York Magazine, in which she discussed his accommodation without questioning Fetterman’s ability, writing, “There’s no great mystery about whether or how well Fetterman can speak: You can watch him do so regularly on television. There is also no open question about whether he can quickly process what he hears: He cannot do that well yet, which is why he requires closed-captioning for interviews and the upcoming debate.” She later called the “callous and contextually loose” reactions to the NBC interview “striking,” adding, “Watching tv news/online pundits leer over clips of an interview in which he’s completely engaged and communicative is stomach-turning and a super depressing example of what I was trying to describe.”
Other journalists called out the bad faith attacks on Fetterman from the NBC interview as well. Hunter Walker asked, “Would they treat a deaf person like this for needing assistance?” Walker later added that before he watched the interview, he had seen some reporters’ tweets that lacked context: “They make it sound so much more abnormal than it was.” NBC’s Paul Rigney, who stated that he was present for the interview, called out one journalist for misrepresenting how Burns described Fetterman’s ability to understand their conversation. Kara Swisher posted a short thread on Twitter questioning Burns’ comment that Fetterman struggled with small talk. NPR correspondent David Gura explained that “most TV journalists require Teleprompter technology to essentially read their questions as they ask them.” And historian David Perry wrote: “The reporter revealing that without captions Fetterman couldn't follow the conversation is as newsworthy as revealing that without glasses I couldn't read this tweet.”
The day after her interview with Fetterman aired, Burns explained she spoke to “stroke experts, they say that these are side effects that do not indicate any sort of cognitive impairment. It’s not that his decision-making or problem-solving or memory has been impacted.”
Yet right-wing media and some mainstream political reporters ignored this context to attack Fetterman in bad faith, sometimes with ableist comments.
Axios senior political correspondent Josh Kraushaar removed “without captioning” from a quote by Burns about the interview.
Multiple right-wing media outlets also left out Fetterman’s successful use of closed captioning to understand questions:
Media Research Center’s Dan Gainor: “Watching media defend Fetterman like he has a conventional disability instead of a disabling stroke is something.”
Former New York Times senior political correspondent Jonathan Martin: “This is a rough clip for @JohnFetterman, will only fuel questions about his health.”
Former Fox contributor Monica Crowley: “He’s unfit to serve in the Senate.”
The Spectator’s Stephen L. Miller: “It's about Fetterman's mental fitness to be able to to do the job of a US Senator.”
CBS News senior White House correspondent Ed O’Keefe: “Will Pennsylvanians be comfortable with someone representing them who had to conduct a TV interview this way?”
Washington Free Beacon: “John Fetterman is not well.”
Tucker Carlson mocked Fetterman, suggesting his consciousness has been taken over by computers.
MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough mocked criticism of the interview, saying disability advocates look like “idiots and hacks,” and asking, “Are they getting tips from Donald Trump followers?”
Fox host Laura Ingraham questioned if Fetterman would be able to “meaningfully participate in the U.S. Senate.”
While on Hannity, conservative radio host Clay Travis falsely described Fetterman as someone who “cannot speak.”
Fox News contributor Charlie Hurt ranted about Fetterman, claiming, “This is not a disability. This is a comprehension problem. This is a coherence problem. This is a communication problem.”
Former CNN commentator Erick Erickson: “John Fetterman Can't Cognitively Process Sounds and Progressives Are Furious We Know.”
Fox Business anchor Maria Bartiromo asked, “Is somebody typing in his answers?”