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The Realities of Covering John Fetterman

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of
AP Photo/Evan Vucci

BRADDOCK, Pennsylvania -- On May 13, just days before the May party primary here in the Keystone State, Lt. Gov. John Fetterman suffered a stroke while on the campaign trail in Lancaster in his run for his party's nomination for U.S. Senate.


As reporters and supporters noticed his absence, his campaign released a statement saying he had been hospitalized over that weekend after suffering a stroke caused by a clot from his heart during an episode of atrial fibrillation.

In the statement, Fetterman said: "The good news is I'm feeling much better, and the doctors tell me I didn't suffer any cognitive damage. I'm well on my way to a full recovery."

The family referred to the medical incident as a "bump in the road."

It was later revealed that the stroke required surgery to implant a pacemaker with a defibrillator because he had a serious heart condition, one that neither reporters nor voters nor his most ardent supporters knew he had.

The public was told he would be back at the beginning of July. That moved to mid-July, then to August. With each change, no updates on his condition were made available to the press or the public.

The political ads he ran most of the summer had been recorded before the stroke. And although a flurry of tweets did come from his account at a brisk pace, none of them provided a doctor's update on his condition. Rather, they all centered on where his opponent, Dr. Mehmet Oz, had lived prior to 2020.

It is not clear if Fetterman does all of his own tweets or if staff do them as well. His campaign staff did not provide an answer to that question by deadline.

When Fetterman returned to the public forum in Erie, the stroke went from "a bump in the road" to him saying, "I almost died," leaving open the delicate question of what is the extent of his illness, with no one to date offering that answer.


The few speeches he has given have been short -- he visibly struggled in giving them -- no direct questions from the press have been taken outside of two closed-captioned interviews, and he is surrounded by a circle of staff who do not allow people or the press to interact with him, including during the Labor Day parade where he marched encircled by dozens of staff and volunteers.

Last week, he refused to debate his Republican rival Oz in the first debate in Pittsburgh that was scheduled to happen Sept. 6 on KDKA; it remains again very unclear if he will do any debates at all.

On Tuesday, I asked Fetterman press secretary Joe Calvello whether the candidate would be releasing an update on his medical condition. I received no answer.

For most of the summer, Oz stayed on the road campaigning, and he stayed away from the issue of his opponent's health. When he finally questioned Fetterman over his apparent unwillingness to commit to a debate and raised the issue if he was going to campaign or just run from his basement, the very online became very irate.

Former state Sen. and state party Democratic Chairman T.J. Rooney says running against someone with medical issues is always a delicate balance for the opponent. "I know we had to run against then-Republican U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter, who had had a series of health problems when he served the state in the Senate," he said. "It's incredibly tricky because the one thing you don't want to do is come across as kind of cold, callous, uncaring. Anytime you raise a delicate issue, you walk a very, very fine line. As a candidate, you want to make your point, but you want to do so in a way that's not offensive because at the end of the day, the vast, overwhelming majority of Pennsylvanians have faced some sort of health maladies."


Former Specter chief of staff David Urban said the difference between Specter and Fetterman is that Specter made all of his health problems public. "He never ran away from what he was going through with his diagnosis of an advanced form of Hodgkin's lymphoma, his triple bypass surgery, or his brain tumor back in 1996," said Urban. "I remember that it was very important to him that he was very transparent about each of them."

"The fact that Fetterman hasn't made his doctors available, or anybody available, is pretty bad," he added. "It flies in the face of the transparency that he has said was important to him since he first ran," said Urban.

Urban, a Pennsylvania native who is a CNN contributor and Republican strategist not working on the Oz campaign, said, "I think everybody understands that John Fetterman had a stroke, his campaign said that he's got some cognitive issues, and that he's going to recover, but if there's nothing wrong, then come out and say that. Have your doctor say that. Be transparent about it," he said.

G. Terry Madonna, political science professor at Millersville University, said the average voter has not paid attention to this so far, now that Labor Day is gone and past and voters are starting to scrutinize each candidate, they are going to want to know what is going on with the lieutenant governor.

"Fetterman and his team have an obligation to be transparent," he said. "He's a candidate for a major office."


Madonna said the delicacy and balance of how you run against someone who has had medical issues is just as difficult for the press covering that candidate. "I think when somebody has a health problem, great care has to be covered in terms of how you handle it," he said. "That doesn't mean you don't have to report it, but you have to be sure you're reporting it accurately."

When the campaign does not answer those questions from reporters, Madonna said what you are left with are reporters unable to tell voters the full story.

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