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Opinion Tucker Carlson’s strange rant about Fetterman shows how media fails

Fox News host Tucker Carlson and Pennsylvania Senate candidate John Fetterman. (Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)

The task of covering John Fetterman’s stroke presents genuinely complicated challenges. How should the news media raise legitimate questions about his health without misleading voters about the precise nature of his struggles? And how can the press debunk innuendo exaggerating his impairment without giving oxygen to misinformation?

Tucker Carlson’s bizarre rant about Fetterman shows the pitfalls of getting this wrong. Carlson seized on the news media’s lack of precision when describing Fetterman’s condition to deceive millions about his Senate candidacy in Pennsylvania. Such failures matter: They get hyper-magnified by right wing propagandists like Carlson and spread in supercharged disinformation form, compounding and outlasting the original error.

Carlson’s rant portrayed Fetterman as a human cyborg based on his use of closed captioning, a common technology used by stroke victims. Carlson wondered aloud “where the man ends and the machine begins,” and even mused about the Fetterman “machine” getting commandeered by assorted unnamed enemies.

But Carlson couldn’t have spun this tale without a bit of help from the mainstream media.

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The whole mess started with an NBC News segment on Fetterman in which reporter Dasha Burns discussed her pre-interview interaction with Fetterman, which didn’t involve closed captioning.

“Without captioning, it wasn’t clear he was understanding our conversation,” Burns said. The interview itself used closed captioning, and throughout it Fetterman had no visible problems processing or “understanding” her questions.

The problem is her use of the word “understanding,” which could be construed to suggest cognitive impairment, potentially misleading voters. Health experts note a sharp distinction between that and the post-stroke challenges in auditory processing Fetterman is experiencing, which can be mitigated with closed captioning but don’t impact cognitive functions such as intelligence or decision-making.

Burns did make this distinction clearer in an MSNBC appearance, explaining that closed captioning was needed to mitigate processing issues. But she again suggested Fetterman had trouble “understanding” her without it.

And presto: That language is exactly what Carlson latched on to in his Wednesday night segment. He aired that Burns quote and then cynically transformed it into something even worse.

“What she just told you is that before the machine was turned on, John Fetterman could not understand human language,” Carlson said.

This idea — that Fetterman couldn’t understand language — is a critical deception. It turns on the deliberate implying of a whole different order of impairment on Fetterman’s part than we know exists.

“It is a fundamental distortion,” Brooke Hatfield, a speech language pathologist at the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, told me.

The idea that Fetterman doesn’t “understand” language misleadingly suggests the problem is not the initial processing of words, but rather “what happens after the brain has recognized what those words are,” Hatfield said. Which implies Fetterman can’t “make a decision” and “act on” ideas and language.

That’s the whole point of the distortion, because a senator does have to make such decisions. Carlson grabbed on to a reporter’s imprecision to create the basis for an elaborate and cynical set of deceptions, then perversely used her words to legitimize all of it.

Carlson built his larger rant on the same deception. It became the foundation for a wild set of theories about how the “machine” — the closed captioning — is literally merging with Fetterman’s brain, with dangerous consequences.

“Where exactly does the software end and John Fetterman’s consciousness begin?” Carlson said. “It’s obvious that Pennsylvania could very well be sending a computer program to the U.S. Senate, where inevitably it will be hacked.”

Hacked! No doubt assorted globalist elites will hack the Fetterman “machine” and get it to vote for admitting the precise amount of non-White immigrants needed to extinguish millions of native-born Americans. Or China will program it to help collapse our country from within with votes for nationally enfeebling green energy spending. Or maybe George Soros will commandeer the Fetterman cyborg and turn it loose in the gulags where the virtuous, persecuted Capitol rioters are languishing!

Fetterman’s health is absolutely fair game for reporters and voters. So is his lack of transparency about his condition. And there’s no sense in denying that finding the right way to report on a condition like this one is fraught and difficult, without easy answers.

But none of that is contradicted by an insistence that precision is imperative on a matter that’s prone to so much demagoguery and distortion.

Which points to another pitfall here: Some mainstream media figures uncritically promoted the faulty aspects of the segment. Others lashed out at people who pointed out the problems with it. The net effect was to imply that demanding precise language when describing Fetterman’s condition is somehow akin to protecting him, which in a perverse way enabled Carlson’s exploitation of the imprecise reporting.

And we know exactly what right wing media are up to here. As Matt Gertz documents at Media Matters, Fox News has been falsifying Fetterman’s condition relentlessly for some time now, along very similar lines.

Asking objective news reporters to be aware that a massive apparatus of disinformation is out there waiting to pounce on and exploit hazy reporting seems like the absolute minimum to expect.