Opinion | Fox News, NBC News and the Oz-Fetterman race


A primer on America’s screwy mediascape unfolded on the Oct. 11 edition of Sean Hannity’s Fox News program. In his coverage of the Senate race in Pennsylvania between Republican Mehmet Oz and Democrat John Fetterman, Hannity highlighted some comments by reporter Dasha Burns on MSNBC regarding her interview with Fetterman, the 53-year-old Pennsylvania lieutenant governor.

“Just in some of the small talk prior to the interview before the closed captioning was up and running, it did seem that he had a hard time understanding our conversations,” said Burns, an NBC News correspondent. The candidate suffered a stroke in May and has auditory processing difficulties; he uses closed-captioning technology in interviews.

After playing those comments for his viewers, Hannity dropped in a disclosure: “Now, by the way, that was on MS ‘DNC’ and see, they’re even raising concerns.” Boldface added to highlight a critical word in the Hannity canon. “Even,” in this context, is the host’s way of claiming that MSNBC remains an appendage of liberal media but it had to yield to reality in this instance.

The real reality is a bit different: While Fox News remains a talking-point-promotion outlet for Republican candidates, its liberal counterpart on the cable box does something vastly different for Democratic candidates. It covers them, that is. That’s an enduring lesson from the Burns drama.

Hannity doesn’t have a lot of new moves. He has been with Fox News since 1996, the network’s founding year. He makes few waves because his attacks and rhetoric are so predictable. Like Trump, he uses repetition as a weapon, clearly figuring that with enough iterations, his audience will buy in.

The Oz-Fetterman campaign is a decent example. Night after night, Hannity voices the same critiques of Fetterman and seizes on all available news morsels favorable to the Oz campaign. Over five programs toward the end of the midterm campaign, for instance, Hannity called on Fetterman to “drop out of the race for his own well-being” (Oct. 26); said he was “not fit to serve” (Oct. 27); ripped him as a “trust fund brat in a hoodie” (Oct. 28); ripped him as a “trust fund brat” (Oct. 31); ripped him as a “socialist trust-fund brat who never worked a day in his life in a hoodie” (Nov. 1).

Many critics over the years have posited that MSNBC is the lefty mirror image of Fox News. If so, it needs to pick up its game in the propaganda department. There’s no question that it can be more hospitable to Fetterman and his Democratic peers than Fox News and some other outlets. Following Fetterman’s debate troubles, for example, MSNBC host Lawrence O’Donnell compared him to Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill. And Rebecca Traister, who wrote a Fetterman profile for New York magazine, provided a sanguine viewpoint on the candidate’s debate performance. “I think it’s tough to say whether or not it will wind up being an asset with voters,” said Traister in a discussion with MSNBC’s Alex Wagner shortly after the debate. “But it was certainly an example of such remarkable transparency.”

Yet MSNBC has no analogue to Hannity, a guy with the message discipline of a coxswain. Nor does it relish forking over its airwaves to promotional interviews with like-minded candidates. According to Media Matters for America, Fox News hosted Republican candidates in eight top Senate races “more than twice as frequently as MSNBC and CNN hosted their Democratic opponents — combined.”

The comparison, however, goes far deeper than MSNBC. Mainstream outlets writ large simply don’t do for Democrats what Fox News does for Republicans, an argument recently advanced by Media Matters senior fellow Matthew Gertz.

The Dasha Burns episode speaks to this asymmetry. She scored the first in-person, sit-down interview with Fetterman since his stroke. At his home in Braddock, Pa., the NBC News correspondent pressed Fetterman on crime and abortion, though she started out with more than 15 questions about the candidate’s health, including several about his failure to release his medical records. Fetterman answered that he had been plenty transparent.

Clocking in at more than 32 minutes, Burns’s interview was adversarial bordering on brutal, such as when she circled back to the health-transparency issue more than 20 minutes into the session. Fetterman stuck to his talking point. (Burns’s interview with Oz was shorter and less tense.)

In her on-air chitchat with MSNBC anchor Katy Tur, Burns observed that Fetterman was having difficulty keeping up with small talk outside the interview. That comment — and the interview itself, which showed Fetterman using captioning technology — touched off a round of criticism that circulated on social media and beyond. Journalists took part in the backlash. Kara Swisher, who had previously interviewed Fetterman for her podcast, tweeted that the assessment was “nonsense” and snarked, “Maybe this reporter is just bad at small talk.” “The View” took a swipe or two at Burns and a New York Times op-ed criticized her for suggesting that “certain kinds of accommodation are illegitimate.”

Disability advocates expressed concern that the interview belabored the “live transcription he required during the sit-down due to his auditory processing issues,” noted BuzzFeed. For the Fetterman campaign, however, the goal of inviting the NBC News crew into the candidate’s home was “a look behind the curtain of how John … does his job while also using captions,” said a campaign source.

The communication problems flagged by Burns resurfaced two weeks later, when Fetterman faced off against Oz on the debate stage and had difficulties completing sentences under the pressure of a live polemical showdown. Some observers called upon Burns’s critics to apologize to her.

According to an informed source, Burns has received some apologies, as well as private support from journalists. Good.

Now for the hypocrisy. On the day after the debate, Fox News host Tucker Carlson found a conspiracy in Fetterman’s rocky performance. “It’s the media who cover John Fetterman who should be the most ashamed. They’ve known the truth for months,” said Carlson on his Oct. 26 show. “With only one exception — that would be NBC reporter Dasha Burns — the media lied to voters about it.”

Steady viewers of “Tucker Carlson Tonight” might have grounds to object here: On any given night, the host blasts NBC News/MSNBC as an extension of the Democratic Party. On Friday night, after the network retracted a story about the attack on Paul Pelosi, Carlson said, “NBC News has no reporting standards.” Yet, Carlson wants to be able to cite the network’s stories when they cast Democrats in a bad light. Folks in rarefied media circles refer to this as Fox News Mainstream Media Citation Hypocrisy Syndrome. (Carlson’s claim that the rest of the media “lied” ignores the fact that Burns was the first to have an in-person sit-down interview with Fetterman after his stroke.)

A Fox News spokeswoman issued this statement regarding the broader critique of the network: “FOX News Channel’s coverage of one of the most newsworthy midterm elections in recent history has the highest viewership among all political persuasions, most notably democrats and independents.”

To sum up: An NBC News correspondent reports a damaging, journalistic observation about a Democratic candidate. Folks who favor that candidate blast the correspondent for various alleged offenses, perhaps wishing she worked for a Fox News of the left. Fox News promotes the correspondent’s observation, even though its top anchors had previously sworn that her network isn’t to be trusted. Then both the correspondent and Fox News return to their previously scheduled work — reporting and propagandizing, respectively.

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