Election 2022

‘Ableist AF’: What disability advocates are saying about NBC’s Fetterman interview

The accusation: A manufactured closed captioning controversy.

FILE—Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. and Senate candidate John Fetterman at a campaign event in Philadelphia in September

FILE—Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. and Senate candidate John Fetterman at a campaign event in Philadelphia in September

Ryan Collerd / AP photo
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A recent interview by John Fetterman, candidate for U.S. Senate and current lieutenant governor of Pennsylvania, is sparking outcry among disability advocates and others in Philadelphia and beyond.

About 1 in 8 Philadelphians lives with a disability, according to a 2018 Pew study, which found Philly has the largest disability population of any major U.S. city. Nationally, a fifth of people living below the federal poverty line also live with disabilities.

The issue arose when Fetterman sat down this week for an interview with Dasha Burns of NBC Nightly News. Anchor Lester Holt introduced it as “not your typical candidate interview.”

The news organization was reportedly “happy” to provide closed captioning to accommodate the auditory processing issues Fetterman has experienced since having a stroke earlier this year. It was also happy to make this a central topic of the conversation.

Instead of his stance on important policy issues or questions about Fetterman’s past record, the segment focused mostly on the stroke he suffered in May, and his subsequent recovery.

Burns pressed Fetterman on his current medical status. “You say you’re on the road to full recovery, but right now, voters have to take your word for it,” she said. Fetterman replied that his doctor wrote a letter saying he would be fit to serve, but Burns noted that was months ago, and voters should know his current status. Others have agreed with this point — editorial boards of The Washington Post and The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette have both called on Fetterman to release more recent medical records.

Also during the segment, Burns said the candidate seemed to be having trouble understanding during small talk before the interview. Fetterman acknowledged during the interview that his stroke had “change[d] everything,” but said he was certain he could still carry out the duties of a U.S. Senator.

Advocates and other observers asserted this kind of media scrutiny of Fetterman’s accommodation was ableist — aka prejudiced against people with disabilities — and noted that many, many Americans use assistive devices on a daily basis.

The coverage is harmful to anyone with a disability who might dream of someday serving in office, several advocates said.

Critics of the segment also responded with anger as other members of the political press shared the interview on social media, either in support of NBC’s approach or raising their own questions about Fetterman’s cognitive ability — like a CNN segment in which chief medical correspondent Sanjay Gupta gave an assessment of Fetterman’s recovery based on the interview.

Some national political voices called it out too.

Journalist Rebecca Traister noted that Fetterman keeps getting asked for more information about his condition, when he has already offered “an open view of his recovery.” Kara Swisher clapped back at Burns’ small talk comment, noting that Fetterman had no problems during their hour-long conversation for Swisher’s podcast. Swisher also is a stroke survivor who has dealt with auditory processing issues.

Politico reporter Holly Otterbein, a Philadelphian, pointed out that several other major news outlets have disclosed Fetterman’s closed captioning accommodations without making it the central focus of their stories.

Disability advocates continue to call treatment of Fetterman’s condition by NBC and some political journalists is stigmatizing, and some have called on NBC to apologize.

Want some more? Explore other Election 2022 stories.

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