Numerous media outlets emphasized that questions about Pennsylvania Senator John Fetterman’s post-stroke health issues were much ado about nothing ahead of the 2022 midterm elections, when he won one of the country’s most hotly contested Senate races.
Having been hospitalized for weeks with depression, the media’s tone has been praising his transparency and then mostly quiet when questions surface about how he runs his office while recovering from serious health issues.
“Mental illness should not be covered any differently than any other illness,” Dr. Marc Siegel to Fox News Digital. “That being said, the people of Pennsylvania owe a senator … we certainly deserve more transparency here.”
“It’s all political positioning rather than concerns about health or ability to function,” Siegel added of the media’s incursion.
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Fetterman’s health came under scrutiny after he suffered a stroke while campaigning for the Pennsylvania seat. But skepticism that Fetterman would be able to handle the rigors of office came largely from the right, as Democrats’ allies in the mainstream media defended him at all costs and criticized Republicans, such as Mehmet Oz’s Senate campaign photos made of Fetterman’s fitness. Fetterman went to victory in a huge Democratic pickup and took office in January.
Fetterman was already struggling to adjust to life in the Senate when he was hospitalized in February for clinical depression. Before that, Fetterman struggled for weeks to adjust to his role as a senator, relying on technology tools to help him communicate with colleagues and his own staff. He had a separate hospital stay after feeling light-headed during a retreat for powerful Democrats.
Ahead of Election Day, NBC reporter Dasha Burns was vilified by the left for even suggesting that Fetterman had a “difficulty” understanding their pre-interview talk.
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Burns’ own colleague, Savannah Guthrie of NBC, pushed her back, insisting that other journalists claimed that Fetterman was fine. Vox’s Kara Swisher was one of the angry Fetterman defenders online, claiming she spoke to him for “over an hour” without any help from aides. Swisher called Burn’s report “bullshit” and suggested that the NBC reporter was “just bad at small talk.”
Liberal podcast host Molly Jong-Fast said Fetterman “understood everything I was saying, and he was funny,” while MSNBC host Stephanie Ruhle tweeted that there were “absolutely no problems” when she spoke to him.
ABC News’s FiveThirtyEight ran a piece stating that Fetterman’s critics were biased against people with disabilities, while MSNBC ran an op-ed headlined, “Why Fetterman’s Senate Campaign Is a Teaching Moment Bigger Than This Election “, which drew attention to “flagrant competence”. The Washington Post also rushed to defend Fetterman last year with a report headlined, “Fetterman’s use of captions is common in stroke recovery, experts say.” It included voices speculating that Fetterman had aphasia, an auditory processing disorder, while admitting to disclosing “very little information about his health”.
Fetterman’s cheerleading media coverage hasn’t backed off since he was hospitalized last month. Curtis Houck, the conservative editor of NewsBusters, who has been open on social media about his own mental health struggles, believes the press covers only part of the story.
“The media is quite capable of doing two things at once, highlighting mental health and how the stress of work and campaigning can wear a person down. At the same time, Fetterman is a senator for a key state that remains one of the largest in the world. the country by popular vote and elected in arguably the most covered race of the midterms,” Houck told Fox News Digital, pointing to a March 9 New York Times article headlined “Closing Walter Reed, Fetterman Runs His senate operation from afar,” as an example of failed reporting.
“The New York Times was right when it said that much of the work in a congressman’s office is done by staff, right down to press releases, tweets and drafting legislation. indefinite and all it takes is a staff to run a Senate seat is an insult to both the voters and the institution,” Houck continued. “Committee hearings, community appearances, press conferences and voting are just a few of the areas that require the presence of an incumbent representative in a way that an unknown staffer could never fulfill.”
The Times report liberally quoted Fetterman’s chief of staff, Adam Jentleson, a longtime Democratic operative who has sharply criticized voices questioning Fetterman’s fitness and blocked some conservative critics who questioned how he runs his office from a hospital. The Times reported, “It is not uncommon for legislators to be told by members of their staff, sometimes after the fact, which bills they co-sponsor,” though it noted that there are drawbacks to not being physically present at the Capitol. For example, he cannot vote on bills.
When the news was first reported, Fetterman was widely praised for undergoing treatment, while very little was said about his ability to serve. Many have celebrated the progress Americans have made since Thomas Eagleton was kicked off Democratic nominee George McGovern’s ticket in 1972 when it was revealed he was suffering from depression.
Talking heads on CNN and MSNBC suggested aides were “surprised” that the senator was depressed, but that there was a “sense of relief” that the issue was being addressed. “Morning Joe,” regular John Heilemann, said that in hindsight, Fetterman’s health problems were ultimately an advantage in the U.S. Senate race.
“They made it into a humanizing element that brought him into contact with the Pennsylvania electorate, and it reinforced the image people have of Fetterman. He’s an ordinary guy,” Heilemann said.
MSNBC’s Alicia Menendez compared Fetterman to Abraham Lincoln for also struggling with metal health issues, while CNN’s Abby Phillip called his treatment an “act of courage.”
CNN’s Michael Smerconish, who was one of the few mainstream pundits to question Fetterman’s fitness ahead of midterms, donned rose-colored glasses and suggested he could emerge as a “mental health role model” for Americans.
“Maybe he could become the face of a mental health epidemic,” Smerconish said. “We can all benefit from it, so thank you, John Fetterman.”
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Once March was on the calendar, most coverage of Fetterman focused on photos his staff tweeted about his recovery and criticism of Republicans who questioned his fitness to serve.
From the day Fetterman began treatment for depression on Feb. 16 through March 16, no one on CNN or MSNBC has questioned his ability to continue serving the people of Pennsylvania, according to a transcript search. Morning and evening newscasts on NBC, CBS and ABC have not looked for answers either.
“As someone who has struggled with his mental health over the years, the question must be asked of how the senator ended up in this position. It is not a finger pointing at any single individual, but a collective effort by his team and the press who, aside from NBC’s Dasha Burns, worked breathlessly to get him in office,” Houck said.
“For any congressman, there are layers and layers of people around you and in a statewide campaign with a following like Fetterman’s, that was widely the case given his slow cognitive recovery from stroke,” Houck added . “The conversation should have been that it was sad that he ended up where he ended up and that he was arguably abused by people who should put his health first. Earth to The [New York] Times: His absence is not something to be dismissed as something of ill-willed ‘detractors’.”
Houck noted that the story about Fetterman’s health was initially reported “as if it came out of nowhere”, except that he was reeling from a stroke and everyone wished him well.
“In reality, the signs were there and if even casual media observers were honest, we would recognize someone running a very stressful campaign, because maybe the top race of a nationwide election cycle is stressful enough, but it was even more brutal. went through it while battling the effects of a stroke,” said Houck.
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Jeffrey McCall, a journalism professor at DePauw University, believes the news media has a “tough challenge” in dealing with the Fetterman situation.
“Reporters should not normally be prying into the personal health issues of newsmakers, who still deserve some degree of privacy regarding their health. The Fetterman situation, however, deserves some journalistic scrutiny because it is legitimate to question whether he can effectively do the job he was chosen to do,” McCall told Fox News Digital.
“This is not like reporting on a senator who has the flu or a broken ankle, who might be able to maintain minimal function while undergoing treatment and presumably be back to full capacity in due course. It is reasonable to ask whether senator Fetterman may resume his duties at some point, and if so, to what extent. It is not mean, unprofessional or intrusive to raise this matter,” he continued. “Fetterman was largely shielded by the media during the campaign last fall, but it would be irresponsible for the news media to feel they should continue to shield Fetterman from questions about his health and fitness for duty during the six years of a Senate term.”
Houston Keene and Alexander Hall of Fox News contributed to this report.
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