Coverage of Fetterman and Oz debate poorly handles the former’s recent stroke

By Riley Dauber

Opinion Editor

Franklin D. Roosevelt. Ronald Reagan. John F. Kennedy – all former politicians who struggled with health issues either before or during their presidential term.

Pennsylvania’s Lieutenant Governor Democratic John Fetterman can also be added to this list after having a stroke in May 2022. Now he is not only recovering, but running for senator in Pennsylvania.

The Oct. 25 debate between Fetterman and Republican candidate Dr. Mehmet Oz brought up questions about whether or not Fetterman is fit for the Senate amidst recovery. However, his experience, beliefs, and current successes should not be overlooked or overshadowed because he is recovering from a stroke.

“[The debate] was a courageous example of a person rising above an obstacle in his path, willing to suffer indignities from people trying to take advantage of his disability as well as simply cruel and ignorant people,” Luke Visconti wrote for USA Today.

Fetterman could have refused to participate in the debate, but decided to go through with it, showing his dedication to his political position. However, many viewers criticized his performance.

According to CNN, Fetterman “request[ed] closed captioning on Tuesday night – but ultimately provided only limited aid, as he dropped thoughts, pushed words together and, at times, repeated phrases.”

While public speaking is an important skill to have when running for a political office, Fetterman has proved through his past experience as Lieutenant Govenor that he is capable and fit for the position.

The debate was only one way for the candidates to show off their skills and beliefs, and while Fetterman’s stroke is a factor, it should not be the headline or the main focus of the debate coverage.

In the debate, both Fetterman and Oz discussed current issues like abortion rights and environmental concerns.

Oz said he believes reproductive rights should be in the hands of “local politicians,” according to CNN, and both candidates said they support fracking. These statements should be the main focus while covering the debate; not the fact that Fetterman repeated phrases because he’s recovering from a stroke.

“Journalists need to always ask themselves, are we covering something because it’s important, because there’s some kind of reason behind it? I think you have to discuss Fetterman’s stroke. Does that have to be all the coverage? To have ethically nuanced, balanced coverage, I would say no,” Associate Professor of English and Associate Chair of the English department Dr. Elizabeth O’Connor said.

For example, The Washington Post released a three-minute video highlighting the main points of the debate. The video was meant to focus on the ideas expressed in the debate and to show what each candidate is representing. However, the comment section seemed mostly concerned with Fetterman’s performance.

“You guys really worked hard to find snippets that made Fetterman almost sound normal,” one commenter said.

By focusing the debate coverage on Fetterman’s recovery and his struggle during the debate, journalists are implying that this debate will heavily hurt his chance at becoming Senator.

“He has given some speeches since then…and he seems like he’s getting some comfort and familiarity in a less scripted environment,” Dr. O’Connor said. “If this was the only example of him, post-stroke, being able to interact with the media or interact with other candidates, I think that would be more troubling.”

Before the midterm election on Nov. 8, it is difficult to say whether or not this performance will affect Fetterman’s chances. But in terms of covering the debate, the focus should have always been on the issues covered, not his stroke.

Although there were a few moments in the debate that tripped Fetterman up, he managed to finish strong with a memorable sentiment to the people of Pennsylvania.

“My campaign is all about fighting for anyone in Pennsylvania that ever got knocked down, that had to get back up again. I’m also fighting for any forgotten community all across Pennsylvania,” Fetterman said.

Then, in a Pittsburgh rally the following day, Fetterman said, “I may not get every word the right way, but I will always do the right thing in Washington, D.C.”

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Photo Caption: Pennsylvania’s Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman is running for senator, but his recent performance in a debate against Dr. Mehmet Oz has many voters concerned.

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