John Fetterman’s post-stroke interview sparked a furious backlash. Here’s why people were angry

Pennsylvania Lieutenant Gov John Fetterman  (AFP via Getty Images)
Pennsylvania Lieutenant Gov John Fetterman (AFP via Getty Images)
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

NBC News found itself facing accusations of both partisanship and insensitivity this week after reporter Dasha Burns interviewed John Fetterman for his first extended sit-down interview since suffering a stroke earlier this year.

The conversation, which touched on a number of political issues in the race, devolved immediately on Twitter into discussions about Mr Fetterman’s cognitive abilities after the reporter opined on whether or not the lieutenant governor and Senate candidate was having problems understanding her questions.

“During some of those conversations before the closed captioning was rolling it wasn’t clear he could understand what we were saying,” Burns said on NBC’s coverage on Tuesday.

That quote opened a can of worms, exacerbated further by an imperfect transcription shared by National Journal’s Josh Kraushaar.

“In small talk before my interview [with Fetterman], it wasn’t clear he understood what I was saying,” Kraushaar incorrectly characterised Burns as saying.

And Burns was far from the only journalist to share that analysis. CBS’s Ed O’Keefe ponderingly tweeted about whether “Pennsylvanians [will] be comfortable with someone representing them who had to conduct a TV interview this way?"

The resulting wave of anger was immediate and two-folded. Burns and NBC (as well as others who shared the opinion) found themselves caught in the middle of two arguments: firstly, that a late-game focus on a stroke that Mr Fetterman had months ago was a last-ditch effort to help Republican Dr Mehmet Oz, Mr Fetterman’s challenger, make up ground. And secondly, the coverage and analysis of the interview itself prompted accusations of insensitivity towards persons with disabilities, including hearing impairments.

Some called the piece a “hit job”. Those criticisms were lobbed solely by the candidate’s extremely online supporters, and are not likely to land with NBC’s editors and producers. Others, however, came from Burns’s colleagues in journalism and were more likely to draw introspection from the network and its journalists, if not the reporter herself.

“Sorry to say but I talked to @JohnFetterman for over an hour without stop or any aides and this is just nonsense,” wrote ReCode founder Kara Swisher, who added, blisteringly: “Maybe this reporter is just bad at small talk.”

Sarah Blahovec, a disability advocate, called Burns’s analysis an example of “pearl clutching about Fetterman needing a reasonable accommodation” for a disability that many others noted was likely to be temporary as he continues to recover and seek therapy for his stroke symptoms.

It even drew a tweet — though far from pointed criticism — from a host at NBC’s sister network MSNBC, Lawrence O’Donnell.

“I have a confession to make. I used a teleprompter in this interview last night. The truth is I am not able to do my show without a teleprompter. (That’s true of every TV news host who is discussing the way John Fetterman does interviews.),” he noted dryly.

It’s highly unlikely that any of this will matter. Cable or broadcast news drama rarely moves the meter in major races, and the same goes for Twitter drama. It’s a drop in the bucket compared to the larger effort by Dr Oz’s campaign and his GOP allies to assert that Mr Fetterman’s stroke symptoms make him unfit for office.

But the incident has sparked conversations about how persons with disabilities, particularly those who may experience temporary or permanent neurological symptoms, are treated by journalists in the political press. Some questioned whether a reporter would feel comfortable making the same criticisms about a person confined to a wheelchair. And a kind of generational divide appeared to emerge as reporters took sides over whether the coverage was fair.

Some of the strongest responses came from both (mostly younger) journalists and disability advocates who said that the issue showed the need to expand the representation of Americans with disabilities in newsrooms around the country; DC and New York in particular. There’s no national organisation for journalists with disabilities akin to those that have been formed to promote representation of others within the field.

“If you’re paying attention, some of the loudest voices in journalism are now conducting a master class on how *NOT* to cover a politician with a #disability,” wrote Steve Silberman, author of a book on autism. “Dramatic reminder that the industry desperately, desperately needs to hire more #disabled journalists.”