A Headache of a Story

Bachmann’s health is in bounds, even if the scoop wasn’t

The story unfolded cryptically, sensationally, in the tabloid style that has chronicled so many starlet meltdowns and hospitalizations.

Dziok’s departure triggered a debilitating medical episode that landed the congresswoman in urgent care. “Within 24 hours she was in the hospital,” a former aide says.

The medical drama is of course Michele Bachmann’s, which became big, breaking news when Jonathan Strong of the right-leaning The Daily Caller published an anonymously-sourced piece under the headline “Stress-related condition ‘incapacitates’ Bachmann; heavy pill use alleged.”

He breaks the suspense in the eighth paragraph of the story:

The Minnesota Republican frequently suffers from stress-induced medical episodes that she has characterized as severe headaches. These episodes, say witnesses, occur once a week on average and can “incapacitate” her for days at time. On at least three occasions, Bachmann has landed in the hospital as a result.

It takes another paragraph for the condition to be called what it is: a migraine headache, a condition which Sheryl Gay Stolberg’s story in The New York Times told us, affects 36 million Americans, or 12 percent of the population.

That doesn’t prevent Strong from making the most of the material he has gotten from his two anonymous former Bachmann staffers, quotes which again read like something from the tabloids or a teenager’s diary.

When she gets ‘em, frankly, she can’t function at all. It’s not like a little thing with a couple Advils. It’s bad,” the adviser says. “The migraines are so bad and so intense, she carries and takes all sorts of pills. Prevention pills. Pills during the migraine. Pills after the migraine, to keep them under control. She has to take these pills wherever she goes.

Eventually, Strong gets around to what the Bachmann campaign says, which is that the candidate suffers from occasional migraines but is not incapacitated, nor driven to rampant pill-popping by them.

The mainstream media was quickly on the case—and soon enough part of the story, too. The Michele-has-migraines story got even bigger when a tussle, reported by Time’s Michael Crowley, took place between Bachmann’s security detail and ABC investigative reporter Brian Ross, who was in pursuit of the story.

Does this story really deserve an investigative unit? Or front page play in The Des Moines Register? (Politico points out this paper’s coverage, key to Bachmann’s chances in Iowa, may matter most.)

The Daily Caller’s story certainly warrants criticism (Salon’s Alex Pareene does a fine, fine job of this; as does Joel Meares in his July/August CJR piece on The Daily Caller’s sensationalist genre), but the broader, de-sensationalized coverage it sparked about Bachmann’s history of migraines is fair and in fact, important.

Bachmann is running for President, a public office that demands that an individual be accountable and on-the job at all times, whether it be for an afternoon security briefing or that ominous 3 a.m. phone call.

If Bachmann periodically needs to be locked in a quiet, dark room for half the day to deal with her headaches, as Politico reported (again by an anonymous source), this is an important fact for voters to consider. As is the fact that Bachmann’s migraines have caused her to cancel appearances and miss congressional votes in the past. Politico’s Kasie Hunt and Molly Ball did the work The Daily Caller failed to, reporting today that, due to migraines, Bachmann missed two votes in May 2010 and eight more that July.

If anything, this coverage is merely occurring earlier than in other years; scrutinizing candidates’ ‘fitness’ for President has frequently been part of the discussion during the general election. In 2008, both President Obama and John McCain—albeit under timed and limited conditions—released their medical records. There was particular media hype around the health of 72-year-old McCain because of his age and history of melanoma.
Prior to that, Bill Bradley was scrutinized for irregular heart beat and in 1972, vice presidential candidate Tom Eagleton was pressured out of the race because of his history of depression and shock therapy treatments.

While few have viewed Bachmann as a viable contender for the White House, her poll numbers show that for now she should be taken seriously.

Some critics have pointed out that past Presidents such as FDR and JFK governed with far more severe maladies. This is true, but only after keeping their conditions secret from the public. They also did it with help: when these Presidents were suffering too much, someone else, someone not elected as president, was calling the shots. (Woodrow Wilson’s wife was essentially in command for 18 months after he suffered a stroke.)

The coverage has also been called sexist, a charge that has shot around the female Twitterverse and blogosphere. Noreen Malone outlined the argument on New York magazine’s website:

Migraines happen to be overwhelmingly a woman’s problem, and (though Bachmann’s are supposedly stress-triggered), they are often linked to both menstruation and menopause—unavoidable biological side effects of being a woman. And so, just by the nature and associations of migraines, the story serves as a reminder of the cave-man argument from way back against women holding office—that they might be undone by their hormones in moments of great stress.

This criticism seems to be getting well ahead of the message, introducing subtexts that simply don’t exist in the coverage. As Malone notes, Bachmann links her migraines to stress and—the Times’s Stolberg confirms this bit from The Daily Caller—wearing high heels.

Whatever the cause, and whatever one’s gender, a health condition that has kept a prospective presidential candidate from doing one’s job in the past has a place for serious, sober treatment and examination in the press. The Daily Caller deserves credit for the scoop, even while its reporting inspires rightful outrage.

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Erika Fry is a former assistant editor at CJR.