Disability advocates are accusing NBC News of ableism following an interview with Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, the Democratic candidate for US Senate, which they say was overly concerned with the live transcription he required during the sit-down due to his auditory processing issues.
The interview by reporter Dasha Burns, which was introduced on NBC Nightly News on Tuesday night by anchor Lester Holt as “not your typical candidate interview,” was Fetterman’s first on camera since he had a near-deadly stroke in May.
Much of the brief interview that aired on Tuesday focused, in a meta way, on the interview itself, describing the need for the live transcription and discussing Fetterman’s medical state. (NBC also uploaded the full 30-minute sit-down on its website.) Burns promoted the interview on Twitter by writing that it was “Unlike any political interview I’ve ever done. Unlike any race I’ve ever covered.”
The response from some political reporters in DC further homed in on the accommodation Fetterman required during the interview. “An important interview with top Senate contender,” CBS reporter Ed O’Keefe said. “Will Pennsylvanians be comfortable with someone representing them who had to conduct a TV interview this way?”
For advocates of people with permanent and temporary disabilities, the interview and the response leaned too much on Fetterman’s condition and whether he was up to the job.
“I was stunned to see how the coverage of his use of captions was so riddled with ableism,” said Maria Town, the president and CEO of the American Association of People with Disabilities. “The interview was deeply upsetting to see.”
Disability activist Charis Hill told BuzzFeed News they were so upset at Burns’s questions and the editors’ framing of Fetterman’s responses — leaving in moments of silence that showed Fetterman reading, for example — that they couldn’t finish watching the interview. Hill called on NBC to apologize for “the overt discrimination they just put on air.”
“The way Burns handled that interview will only worsen attitudes and violence towards disabled people in a time when virtual accommodations are being removed left and right after they were implemented overnight in 2020,” Hill said.
Eric Buehlmann, deputy executive director for public policy at the National Disability Rights Network, said he watched the interview having himself suffered a traumatic brain injury when he was in law school. Buehlmann also has a son with auditory processing issues similar to Fetterman’s.
“As the discussion was occurring in the interview the other day, I'm like, Yeah, this happens to people and people deal with this, and this is a reality of life for a number of people,” Buehlmann said. “So it shouldn't be used as a stigmatizing tool, or something that needs to, quote-unquote, disqualify someone from being a senator.”
Burns told viewers that Fetterman appeared to struggle to understand her during small talk before the live transcription began, but other journalists who’ve interviewed Fetterman defended him and said that was not their experience — something Burns has conceded is “completely fair.”
“That was their experience,” Burns said on NBC’s Today on Wednesday morning. “We can only report our own.”
Burns also noted on air that stroke experts had told her that Fetterman’s auditory processing difficulties were not evidence of memory or cognitive issues.
The campaign of Fetterman’s opponent Mehmet Oz has not weighed in on the interview, but the Republican candidate did make reference to it on Twitter, highlighting a quote from Burns in which she said Fetterman’s staff had not made available his medical records or doctors for an interview. (Fetterman did release a statement in June from his cardiologist, who said the candidate should be able to serve in Congress if he takes his recovery seriously.)
Fetterman also acknowledged the controversy around the interview on Wednesday morning, tweeting, “Recovering from a stroke in public isn’t easy. But in January, I’m going to be much better — and Dr. Oz will still be a fraud.”
Representatives from the Fetterman and Oz campaigns didn’t immediately respond to requests from BuzzFeed News for comment, and an NBC News spokesperson declined to comment.
However, the network’s public relations team did retweet a post from Burns in which she defended the segment.
“We were happy to accommodate closed captioning. Our reporting did not and should not comment on fitness for office. This is for voters to decide,” Burns wrote. “What we do push for as reporters is transparency. It’s our job. Fetterman sat down and answered our questions. That’s his job.”
Fetterman’s summer of fun, marked by a highly effective and unusual social media campaign that trolled Oz mercilessly for things as silly as his use of the word “crudité,” has certainly ended, with polls showing his support shrinking and the race tightening dramatically. The nonpartisan Cook Political Report last week shifted the race back from “Lean Democrat” to “Toss Up” status. Whoever wins could shift the balance of power in the US Senate.
In recent weeks, Oz has hammered Fetterman in advertisements that depict him as being soft on crime — something Republicans are doing to Democrats in races across the country, to the chagrin of crime researchers who say it doesn’t match up with reality.
Oz, one of the country’s most famous television doctors, has previously mocked Fetterman’s health, employing a “basement tracker” to monitor how many days he’d been recovering at home and off the campaign trail.
The Republican also hammered Fetterman for being a “coward” for not committing to a debate over much of the campaign, suggesting sarcastically that he would need answers fed to him via earpiece and medical staff on standby, which Fetterman said showed Oz “mocking a stroke survivor.”
When Fetterman did eventually agree to an Oct. 25 debate, it was on the condition that he be able to use live transcription and have two short practice sessions to get used to the software. Oz’s team wanted the moderators to tell viewers that Fetterman was using a closed captioning system and criticized him for insisting on “accommodations for his health condition, accommodations that are not permitted on the US Senate floor.”
Town, with the AAPD, said the back-and-forth about the debate was itself evidence of ableism.
“If Dr. Oz had asked for something like a stool to sit on during the debate, that would be an accommodation as well, but no one would question it, right?” Town said. “[Fetterman is] asking for a reasonable accommodation, and disabled people have a right to accommodations in order to perform their job.
“Viewers will have access to captions during the debate,” Town added. “They'll be able to turn them on on their TVs or on their computers, so why not the candidate?”
American voters have typically come to expect candidates, especially those seeking major positions of political power, to release health information as they campaign. But exactly how much are voters entitled to?
Advocates say requiring more health information from people with disabilities — and then placing more media scrutiny upon them — leads to unfair stigma that could have a chilling effect on which candidates choose to run for office.
“When we see persistent barriers in place for disabled candidates to run for office — whether that is ableism from an opposing campaign, ableism in news coverage, policy barriers that are in place — it reduces the diversity of the overall candidate base for both parties,” Town said. “And it also, in this specific instance, I think sends a really terrible and hostile message to anyone who might be on the fence about asking for accommodations.
“What is so harmful about seeing what's happened to John Fetterman is that he's actually experiencing what many disabled people experience every day when we ask for accommodations,” Town added, “which is an instant doubt of our competence and a questioning about whether, you know, ‘Can you really do this job?’”
Katie Camero contributed reporting to this story.