Many mainstream media outlets are providing a sympathetic framing to Democratic Pennsylvania Senate candidate John Fetterman’s decision not to debate his Republican opponent Dr. Mehmet Oz as Fetterman recovers from a stroke.
That appears to be in part because of the sharp attacks from Oz’s campaign and Republican allies that have included sarcastic pledges to help Fetterman through any debates, and one spokesperson’s acerbic remark that Fetterman could have avoided his stroke by eating more vegetables.
On-air conversations from CNN and MSNBC saw media figures widely condemning the Oz campaign’s comments about Fetterman’s health, and hypothesizing that it may push people away from a Republican candidate with an already unenthusiastic voter base. However, several commentators and guests also expressed concern at Fetterman’s ability to govern. Fetterman, who suffered a stroke in May and spent time away from the campaign trail, has said he does plan to debate Oz at some point.
When speaking with Fox News Digital, Legal Insurrection founder and media critic William A. Jacobson said media coverage would be different if a Republican skipped debates over health problems.
“It’s often helpful to ask how the media would treat a situation if the party affiliations were reversed. Is there any doubt that if a Republican candidate had a serious potential mental impairment, and stayed off the campaign trail and refused to debate because of it, that the media would be all over the issue? Of course it would be front and center, and the public interest would take priority over sympathy,” he said.
CNN political commentator Michael Smerconish said that Fetterman’s health was a “legitimate concern,” but also called Oz’s comments “asinine” and sophomoric.”
“This may end up being to the benefit of Fetterman because we all know someone who has suffered a stroke, and Oz through his response to this, I think has made Fetterman more sympathetic,” he added.
CNN political analyst Jackie Kucinich made a similar statement on “Inside Politics with John King” when she claimed that Fetterman had turned a “legitimate issue” about his health into a “potential positive.” She further referenced a recent campaign ad for Fetterman that saw the Democratic candidate ask a crowd “who here has ever had a health issue” to which a vast majority of people raised their hands.
CNN’s John Avlon was more critical of Fetterman’s decision to skip a September debate against Oz, with the “New Day” panel finding a number of disagreements among the group.
Natasha Alford, another CNN political analyst, said on the panel that she worried more about the Oz campaign, as opposed to the Fetterman campaign when it came to the Democrat’s health scare. Citing a recent poll that indicated Fetterman’s stroke was not a major concern for potential voters, Alford said “people don’t mind” Fetterman’s health issue, and that it is not a “weak point” for them.
Avlon then jumped into stating that Alford’s perspective was a “separate issue.”
“I don’t know why it is so hard in our politics today to apply the same standards no matter which political party is in question. You know, you give Republicans a lot of grief for trying to duck debates, I know I do,” Avlon said. “You know what? You gotta do the same thing when a Democrat does it for whatever reason.”
Avlon added that, although Fetterman should not be the victim of low blows from his opponent, he has an “obligation” to debate Oz in front of his potential constituents.
Over on MSNBC, Puck News senior political correspondent Tara Palmeri said it is “absolutely a weakness” for the Fetterman campaign that its leader is not well enough to go out and campaign. She said it was important for Fetterman to get out and campaign if he is not able to debate, but admitted that the strategy of staying out of the spotlight has been working for him.
She then echoed the words of several other media figures when she surmised that Oz’s comments about Fetterman’s health may turn his health issue from a “weakness” into a “strength.”
While Oz himself has expressed hopes for Fetterman’s full recovery, his campaign at times has thrown elbows, with an Oz spokesperson at one point suggesting the Democrat wouldn’t have had a stroke if he “had ever eaten a vegetable in his life.”
KTTH radio host Jason Rantz told Fox News Digital that it’s important for Oz to bring up Fetterman’s health issues without appearing like he is picking on him, but also knocked the media for “dishonest” news coverage.
“Journalists find themselves in a pickle. They know Fetterman’s health is a clear issue and reasonable concern, but they don’t want to hurt his chances of winning. This just reminds us how utterly incapable some journalists are of offering honest news coverage,” he said.
DePauw University journalism professor Jeffrey McCall said that sympathetic media coverage of Fetterman’s health is “understandable,” but the media need to recognize there is a difference between understanding and holding someone accountable as a candidate.
“We should all be concerned for Fetterman’s health, of course, but this seat in the Senate could well determine Senate control, and thus, Fetterman should be expected to demonstrate that he can handle the duties of the office,” McCall told Fox News Digital. “Being an effective senator requires being able to debate in committee hearings and on the floor of the Senate. Therefore, Fetterman should be expected to rhetorically engage the public through formal debates and through in-depth media interviews.”
He noted that Oz’s attempt to get Fetterman to the debate stage came across as “insensitive.”
Mainstream media outlets have also provided somewhat solicitous framings in print reports, such as the Washington Post’s piece headlined, “Fetterman campaign says stroke recovery factors into fall debate plans.”
“Advisers say Fetterman can engage in one-on-one conversations but struggles with more chaotic auditory environments, a condition that is common for stroke survivors and which doctors say can improve over time,” the report stated.
Some conservatives knocked the Washington Post’s tweet of the story, noting a debate format would essentially be a one-on-one conversation.
It went on to outline the Republican attacks on Fetterman for avoiding debates and also relayed an anonymous Democratic source’s description of focus group members who apparently had little concern about his condition.
“The growing tensions highlight an extraordinary dynamic unfolding in a race seen as central to deciding which party controls the Senate next year. Republicans are trying to make Fetterman’s health and his campaign’s explanation of it a liability this fall after Fetterman suffered a stroke in mid-May and only later revealed a more complete picture of his medical history,” the Post wrote.
Other outlets also framed their stories through the lens of the Oz campaign making an issue of Fetterman’s health.
NBC News, in a report headlined, “Fetterman rejects Oz offer to hold first debate, calls list of ‘concessions’ insulting,” highlighted the Oz campaign’s evidently sarcastic offers to afford Fetterman whatever he needed to get through a debate, such as bathroom breaks, an earpiece to communicate with his staff and on-hand notes.
“John Fetterman, the Democratic nominee for an open Senate seat in Pennsylvania, rejected Mehmet Oz’s offer to hold their first debate next week, saying the GOP candidate’s campaign thinks ‘it is funny to mock’ his recovery from a stroke,” NBC reported.
The New York Times bemoaned the “ugly turn” in the race in a dispatch headlined, “When Fetterman Declined to Debate, Oz Made His Stroke an Issue.”
The piece acknowledged that “Mr. Fetterman said on Tuesday that he would not participate in a debate in early September, implying that his recovery from his stroke in May was not complete enough for him to perform at the peak of his abilities. His decision came after a day of goading by the Oz campaign.”
“While there is a long tradition in American politics of candidates’ questioning rivals’ health and fitness for office, Dr. Oz seized on the issue as he has been reviving his struggling candidacy,” the Times reported. “The attacks have pried open an issue that the Fetterman campaign has sought to control — Mr. Fetterman’s health — by avoiding free-for-all questioning from the news media or voters since the candidate’s return to campaigning this month.”
It acknowledged an Aug. 23 clip of Fetterman’s halting speech and searching for words, before adding, “Conservative news outlets and commentators seized on clips from the appearance to portray Mr. Fetterman as unfit.”