NEW YORK — An NBC News correspondent who interviewed Pennsylvania Senate candidate John Fetterman said Wednesday that her reporting should not be seen as commentary on his fitness for office after he suffered a stroke.
But reporter Dasha Burns’ on-air comment that Fetterman appeared to have trouble understanding a conversation while they were making small talk has attracted attention — and is being used by politicians looking for an advantage in the closely followed Senate race against Republican Mehmet Oz.
Fetterman, a Democrat, suffered a stroke on May 13, and his health has emerged as a major issue in the campaign.
Burns’ Friday interview with Fetterman, which aired Tuesday, was his first on-camera interview since his stroke. He used a closed-captioning device that printed text of Burns’ questions on a computer screen in front of him.
Fetterman appeared to have little trouble answering the questions after he read them, although NBC showed him fumbling for the word “empathetic.” Burns said that when the captioning device was off, “it wasn’t clear he was understanding our conversation.”
“This is just nonsense,” business reporter and podcaster Kara Swisher, who had a stroke herself in 2011, said on Twitter. “Maybe this reporter is just bad at small talk.”
Swisher recently conducted an interview with Fetterman for her podcast and said, “I was really quite impressed with how well he’s doing. Everyone can judge for themselves.” Swisher has called attacks on Fetterman because of his health “appalling.”
A New York magazine reporter, Rebecca Traister, who interviewed the candidate for a cover story titled “The Vulnerability of John Fetterman,” tweeted that his “comprehension is not at all impaired. He understands everything. It’s just that he reads it and responds in real time … It’s a hearing/auditory challenge.”
Burns said she understands that different reporters had different experiences with Fetterman.
“Our reporting did not and should not comment on fitness for office,” Burns tweeted on Wednesday. “This is for voters to decide. What we push for as reporters is transparency. It’s our job.”
Stories about the interview aired on “NBC Nightly News” and the “Today” show.
Associated Press correspondent Marc Levy in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, contributed to this report.
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