Media Scrutiny of John Fetterman’s Health Unnecessary, Ableist

On Oct. 25, Pennsylvania’s U.S. Senate candidates, Republican Mehmet Oz and Democrat John Fetterman, participated in their only formal debate prior to the midterm election. Despite the substantive responses to questions that covered large swaths of policy, including abortion, gun control, and immigration, one topic remained at the center of discussion and coverage about the debate: the accommodations made so that Fetterman could participate. 

This past May, Fetterman suffered a stroke, causing him to struggle with auditory processing. Due to Fetterman’s disability, screens were set up in the debate venue that displayed captions so he could follow along. What should have been a tangential detail instead devolved into an ableist media circus. The focus of the debates shifted away from discussions of policy and onto Fetterman’s very reasonable need for accommodations.

The core of the issue is that reporters do not trust a disabled person to serve as a senator. Not only is this unduly shifting support away from the best candidate, it also sends the message to disabled Americans that they are not trusted to do their jobs because they don’t fit the image of what a competent person should look like. 

It may be tempting to place the blame for this kind of rhetoric exclusively on right-leaning media outlets, but it does not lie with them alone. To be clear, that sector of the political media ecosystem has certainly been having a field day with Fetterman’s accommodations. In The Hill’s Oct. 25 story titled “Five things to watch in the only Pennsylvania Senate debate between Fetterman and Oz,” Fetterman’s health topped the list. Fox News published an article the following day with the headline, “Fetterman’s lingering stroke effects would clearly handicap him as senator, GOP Senate experts say.”

The fact is, left-leaning or largely politically neutral news outlets have also questioned Fetterman’s competency due to his stroke. Before the debate, The New York Times published an article titled “Pennsylvania Senate Debate Will Have Real-Time Transcriptions to Accommodate Fetterman’s Recovery.” After the event, the newspaper published another news article titled “​​Fetterman, Showing Stroke Effects, Battles Oz in Hostile Senate Debate.” Almost every recent article from the Times on the debate mentions Fetterman’s stroke in the headline or first paragraph. The beginning of a post-debate recap from the politics section of NBC’s website called into question Fetterman’s fitness to serve, and an Axios story in the politics and policy section went even further, calling Fetterman’s performance “painful.”

“Multiple sources wondered why Fetterman agreed to debate when he clearly wasn’t ready. Fetterman struggled at times to respond to the moderators’ questions, even with the assistance of a closed captioning device,” the Axios article reads. By equating Fetterman’s struggles with a lack of preparedness, the article sets an ableist expectation of who deserves to have their voice heard. Struggling to answer questions is a result of Fetterman’s disability, and being disabled should never disqualify someone from being considered “prepared” or good enough to debate. 

Beyond the implication that Fetterman’s less-than-perfect speech renders him unfit to serve in the Senate, the coverage of Fetterman’s health also brings up the issue of confidentiality and trust. Fetterman’s doctor, Dr. Ramesh R. Chandra, who has been closely following his recovery, has confirmed multiple times since the incident that Fetterman is fit to serve.

“If he does what I’ve told him … he should be able to campaign and serve in the U.S. Senate without a problem,” Chandra wrote in a statement in June.

In mid-October, Chandra said that Fetterman had no work restrictions. Despite assurances from Fetterman’s medical team, news outlets have continually questioned his choice not to release all of his medical records. A story from The New York Times called Fetterman “cagey.”

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette published a news article called “Medical experts weigh in on John Fetterman’s stroke recovery after U.S. Senate debate with Mehmet Oz.” Are Fetterman’s doctors not trustworthy enough medical experts? Why should a bunch of external physicians be employed to speculate about someone’s medical history? 

 In my view, the most egregious move in this whole debacle is the Post-Gazette’s editorial board endorsing Oz in the Senate election as of Sunday, Oct. 30 (though to be fair, the Post-Gazette editorial board has been publishing problematic articles since 2020 when they endorsed Donald Trump, breaking a 48-year hiatus from endorsing Republican presidential candidates). 

The rationale for endorsing Oz was disconcerting, as it was largely contingent upon what the publication deemed a lack of transparency from Fetterman for not releasing his complete medical records, demonstrating a lack of trust in Fetterman and his care team, as well as egregious disregard for privacy and the confidentiality of medical records. It is also worth noting that Oz seems to have released his medical records not out of a sense of duty but as a means to draw more attention to Fetterman’s stroke, releasing them after a Post-Gazette editorial called on both candidates to do so, which was likely prompted by Fetterman’s stroke symptoms.

While I understand wanting confirmation that Fetterman will be able to execute senatorial duties, his doctor has disclosed the information necessary to determine his capacity to serve. The Post-Gazette wrote that “all candidates for a major elected office should release their medical records, as did Mr. Oz. If you want privacy, don’t run for public office.” However, it is incredibly common for candidates to run for office without releasing complete medical records. We don’t often talk about it because not every candidate for office is disabled. This has only become an issue during this election because people have the false notion that existing as a disabled person merits excessive public scrutiny of one’s health. There should be a certain amount of confidentiality granted surrounding medical records regardless of someone’s job, and voters shouldn’t have to see every detail to have faith in a disabled person to execute the duties of public office.