But it’s only what can be determined by what the public sees of an officeholder or a candidate. I mean, we’ve certainly had a long period of time in this [primary] campaign, so there’s been a fair amount of exposure of these candidates to reporters and the public and if there was something really unusual, I think we would’ve picked it up in terms of mood or behavior or something along those lines. They may not be able to detect a more serious underlying medical condition, but everybody needs a full medical exam and that has to be made available, or should be made available.

CB: What about the case of Paul Tsongas, who would have died in office had he been elected? Was there anything that reporters could’ve picked up on at the time that would indicated that his condition was more serious than he let on?

LA: He brought it up as a campaign issue. He made himself a cancer survivor, he talked openly about his treatment, and therefore it became a campaign issue that he himself addressed. I remember talking to a number of political reporters at the time, and they hadn’t looked into it during the New Hampshire campaigning, which I think that year was the first major campaign. I believe he talked about it, but nobody went into the issue of what was the history of somebody with a cancer of that type, what were the chances that it would recur, and so forth. I believe we covered it around the time that he was campaigning in Maryland. It ordinarily takes a long time for the candidates to agree to do this. It seems to be something that, although they say they’ll talk about it, they’re very reluctant to actually turn over information and invite an independent check.

CB: I imagine that part of the reluctance has to do with the fear that disclosing certain aspects about a candidate’s health could hurt the campaign. In fact, at least one blog called an article you wrote in March about the lack of attention McCain’s health a “hit piece.” What is your reaction?

LA: Not having seen the particular blog and the comment I can’t directly comment on that, but you know, from the mail I get, people do not like anything said negatively about a candidate that they support. So part of it comes under that category, and I would ask them what their criticism was of reporting on the available information, interpreting it as best as possible, pointing out the number of people who are raising questions — and, my gosh, how many people were asking what was wrong with McCain’s cheek? Trying to answer a question when the campaign wouldn’t adequately answer it, and then putting together the information that was available, to me was responsible reporting.

So I don’t know what their particular criticism could be for doing that. I do remember in 2000 when [Bill] Bradley was running for president, we had been trying to get him to talk about his atrial fibrillation for some time and he didn’t do it until about a week before the New Hampshire primary, at which time we did a piece about it. People were complaining that we held the piece and ran it deliberately before the primary, but that was the choice of the candidate who wouldn’t give an interview until then. So you have to go by what the facts in the case are. We had no choice because we couldn’t responsibly report the information without his permission and his doctor’s permission and so forth. The candidate determined the timing of the piece, not the news organization.

CB: What about Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton? That article from March didn’t mention them. Have reporters given them the same rigorous treatment they’ve given McCain?

LA: Well, the request was made to those campaigns and, so far as I know, Mrs. Clinton did not issue anything about her health. Senator Obama released a statement from his doctor the week following McCain and we reported that. But until we had that statement from his doctor there was nothing to report on his health specifically that had medical bearing. And if you look at the Obama piece I did, I pointed out what information was not included in his doctor’s statement and the fact that the letter was undated and so forth.

CB: Some medical conditions, including McCain’s, can be a little ambiguous. On the one hand, he has a history of cancer; on the other hand, he successfully battled it and it hasn’t recurred. To what extent can reporters fall into the glass-half-full/glass-half-empty trap?

Curtis Brainard is the editor of The Observatory, CJR's online critique of science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.