JNS.org | by Jonathan Tobin | February 20, 2023
Sen. John Fetterman (D-PA) deserves the sympathy and the well-wishes of the nation. The announcement by a senior aide that Fetterman is likely to remain hospitalized for severe depression for more than a month is sad news.
But now that the extent of his health problems can no longer be entirely concealed, the questions to be raised about this broader saga should not be confined to those about his clinical treatment and if and when he will return to his senatorial duties. Rather, we must scrutinize the way all but conservative media outlets have run interference for Fetterman throughout his successful 2022 Senate campaign and since he took office, in order to prevent the public from knowing the full extent of his impairment and ability to serve.
The tone of much of the corporate media’s reporting about Fetterman’s first weeks in office had largely been confined to cheery explanations of how the Senate and his colleagues were adjusting to his needs as a recovering stroke victim, rather than his health-related difficulties.
Even a largely optimistic feature in The New York Times on Fetterman’s Senate routine noted that his recovery from the stroke he suffered only four days before winning the Pennsylvania Democratic Senate primary last May had been set back because he didn’t take the time to rest that doctors recommend for patients in his position.
Fetterman’s appalling performance during his sole debate with Republican Senate candidate Dr. Mehmet Oz raised serious questions about his health. But it had little impact on the outcome of a race that he wound up winning by a fairly comfortable 51%-46% margin. Nearly 700,000 votes had already been cast before the debate, and in the current hyper-partisan environment, it’s far from clear that anything would have deterred Pennsylvania liberals from backing Fetterman.
Another impediment to inquiries about Fetterman’s fitness was the Democrats‘ success in spinning him as a poster child for acceptance of those with disabilities. As the recent Times article demonstrated, Fetterman’s situation has continued to be treated as morally and functionally equivalent to Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) needing ramps and other accommodations to get around Capitol Hill because she lost both her legs while serving during the Iraq War.
But as with Democrats’ long (and now successful) push to force Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) to retire because of the obvious evidence of the 89-year-old’s cognitive decline, there is a difference between a senator who is fully capable of serving but requires a wheelchair and one who is ambulatory but mentally diminished.
Fetterman is unable to engage in routine Senate work without the help of digital technology that translates speech into text. But he is also incapable of easily speaking in normal fashion to colleagues, the press, or constituents, and is constantly surrounded by aides who shield him from such encounters.
While Fetterman’s apologists claim these disabilities are temporary, his recent hospitalization for what some feared might be a sign of a second stroke, and now his diagnosis of depression, severely call into question the widespread celebration of his presence in the Senate as an ostensible rebuke of ableism.
It’s also an apt moment to remember the way the corporate media covered for him during his campaign last year. A number of prominent liberal reporters interviewed Fetterman in the months after his stroke and then reliably assured the public that he was fine.
Only one journalist, NBC News reporter Dasha Burns, dissented. Hers was the sole on-camera interview that Fetterman gave prior to the debate with Oz. But Burns later noted that when his closed-captioning device was not turned on, Fetterman couldn’t understand their conversation.
In response, team blue journalists performed a collective gang tackle on Burns, denouncing her as insensitive or as somehow bolstering the GOP. The Atlantic and Vogue contributor Molly Jong-Fast called Burns’ comments “B.S.”
New York Magazine’s Rebecca Traister and Kara Swisher, of Vox and New York Magazine, agreed, arguing that Fetterman was just fine and claims to the contrary must evince journalistic misconduct. Even “Today” TV host Savannah Guthrie, an NBC colleague of Burns’, seemed to attack her credibility.
Armed with such testimonials, Gisele Fetterman, the candidate’s wife, not only demanded that NBC apologize, but even asserted there should be “consequences” for Burns.
Until the debate, when Fetterman’s severe problems were evident, the journalists’ defense of him might have seemed credible. But anyone who watched the dismal spectacle and who was not so blinded by partisanship so as to ignore the glaring evidence knew who had told the truth about Fetterman and who had not. Burns gave the public very important, and much needed, information.
As for Jong-Fast, Traister, and Swisher, they lied—plain and simple.
Their motives, like those of Fetterman’s wife’s, were not a mystery. The same goes for all those who seconded the objections to Burns’ reporting. They all wanted Democrats to retain control of the Senate. And they were prepared to cover up or falsify the facts about Fetterman’s health in order to advance his candidacy. Even after Fetterman took office, the supportive quotes about him from Senate Democrats and sympathetic reporters continued despite his problems becoming obvious to all.
We must all hope that Fetterman is able to surmount the enormous health challenges he faces, though it is not unfair to conclude that partisan considerations led to the sacrifice of his health and the possibility that this neglect could have long-term damaging effects.
The conclusion to be drawn from this sad tale transcends the arguments between the political parties: When it came to Fetterman’s health and cognitive ability, journalists were prepared to sacrifice the truth in order to advance a partisan agenda.
Just as it is likely that Feinstein’s willingness to sometimes tilt toward the center made liberal journalists more likely to focus on her own impairments, the desire to elect and then keep in office a man who was a reliable party-line progressive deterred coverage of his serious health problems until it was too late to cover them up.
The Fetterman saga is one more indictment of a mainstream liberal media that has long since abandoned its duty to report the news fairly, opting instead for partisan cheerleading. In doing so, the press is not merely responsible for helping to elect a senator who cannot serve, but is making it impossible to believe anything it reports.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS.org and a senior contributor to The Federalist. Follow him on Twitter: @jonathans_tobin.
The views expressed in this article are the writer’s own.