If you follow politics, by now you probably know about Democrat John Fetterman’s unsettling performance in the Pennsylvania U.S. Senate debate against Republican Mehmet Oz this week. Mr. Fetterman, who suffered a stroke just before he won his party’s primary in May, was obviously impaired, calling into question his fitness to appear in the debate or hold the office he’s seeking.
In politics, it’s said that it’s hard to win a debate, but a candidate surely can lose one, and Mr. Fetterman most definitely lost. Some observers predicted the night would propel Dr. Oz to victory.
Mr. Fetterman’s cognitive condition is now the story of the campaign, but the news media are at war among themselves over how to cover it.
The first shots were fired two weeks ago when NBC News correspondent Dasha Burns aired an interview with Mr. Fetterman, who used a closed captioning device for their conversation. Ms. Burns said that when he wasn’t using the device, “it wasn’t clear he was understanding our conversation.”
The backlash from some of her media colleagues was swift.
“This is just nonsense,” tweeted podcaster and stroke survivor Kara Swisher, leading a pack of leftist journalists who said they have interviewed Mr. Fetterman recently. “Maybe this reporter is just bad at small talk.”
“This is bs,” agreed Molly Jong-Fast of The Atlantic in a tweet.
New York magazine’s Rebecca Traister also defended Mr. Fetterman, tweeting, “He understands everything.”
Additional preemptive damage control came on the afternoon of debate day from Time senior correspondent Charlotte Alter, who tweeted that viewers shouldn’t expect much because “Fetterman has never been a good debater” and doesn’t “usually speak in fluent paragraphs memorized ahead of time.”
Curiously, this is exactly what the Fetterman campaign put out the day before in a memo meant to lower expectations. It’s an amazing coincidence that Time magazine held an identical opinion.
When the TV lights finally came on, Mr. Fetterman began his opening statement by saying: “Hi. Good night, everybody.”
It got a lot worse from there, though he was aided by large monitors captioning everything that was being said.
Challenged by a debate panelist to square his previously emphatic opposition to fracking with his newfound support for it, he appeared befuddled, saying, “Uh, I do support fracking, and I don’t, I don’t, I support fracking, and I stand, and I do support fracking.”
For viewers, there were many such tortured answers — often painful to watch — and it was natural to feel empathy for the man.
But Mr. Fetterman wants to be a senator, so some in the media did their jobs and reported on what was plain to all and impossible to ignore.
Under a headline that referenced Mr. Fetterman’s “struggles,” Politico reported that he found it difficult “at times to effectively communicate — missing words, pausing awkwardly and speaking haltingly.”
The New York Times called him “frequently halting” and noted that he had pauses while reading the captioning or when “reaching for a phrase or word.”
CNN’s Alisyn Camerota said that when she’d interviewed Mr. Fetterman before, “He was much more, sort of, clear spoken than what I’m hearing.”
On NewsNation, former CNN host Chris Cuomo declared that “Clearly, fitness for office is going to be on the table.”
But others continued to run interference for the Democrat.
USA Today columnist Connie Schultz, who is married to Democratic Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown, tweeted that critiques of Mr. Fetterman ignored “the randomness of illness and infirmity,” and that “time catches up with everyone, no exceptions.”
That may be true, but not everyone is running for the Senate.
MSNBC columnist Liz Plank tweeted that those panning Mr. Fetterman were engaging in “ableism,” as though processing information and communicating clearly were unreasonable expectations for a candidate for high federal office.
On ABC’s “The View,” Sonny Hostin said that Dr. Oz “chose to bully a stroke victim” simply because he behaved as though it were a real debate between candidates standing for election.
Incredibly, members of the editorial board of the Philadelphia Inquirer went a step beyond calling fouls, collectively giving Mr. Fetterman a higher score than Dr. Oz — 4.3 to 4.1 out of 10.
Inquirer columnist Helen Ubiñas said: “He struggled, more than many were comfortable with, I’m sure. But that says more about us, than him.”
Numerous print stories cleaned up Mr. Fetterman’s utterances, eliminating verbal stumbles and presenting them as complete and coherent sentences when they were not. This is airbrushing in a way they would never dream of doing for a Republican.
But the fact is that Mr. Fetterman’s manifest ailments are the only thing that people will remember from this debate. And media watchers will note that some covered the events as they unfolded, while others couldn’t resist putting on the jersey for their preferred candidate.
• Tim Murtaugh is a Washington Times columnist and the founder and principal of Line Drive Public Affairs, a communications consulting firm where he advises political candidates and corporate clients.