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?

LA: If you’re talking about the cancer specifically, it depends on the state of understanding and knowledge about how melanomas behave. You have to point out as much of the facts and information as you can in that particular situation on deadline, and that’s why [in the Times article] I pointed out the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology report questioning whether [McCain’s melanoma from 2000] was a metastasis and not a primary [tumor growth], which would change the classification. And the McCain people, when I asked for clarification of this and asked to talk to the doctors afterward—which they’d told us they would allow and then didn’t—they just issued some statement from the Mayo Clinic [which operated on melanoma] saying they stood by their diagnosis. So there’s no way to keep checking; that closes off an avenue of communication. In our case, we had no way of specifically communicating with his doctors to clarify any point that they wanted to clarify or to clarify any of the points that we wanted to clarify. So we had to go by what was disclosed by the pool of reporters and the limited questioning that occurred in the teleconference. But there’s another aspect of this, too—why don’t candidates themselves raise the question about their opponents health? When that comes up, it should be covered. In 1996, Bob Dole brought up the fact that Clinton hadn’t disclosed his medical information and then there was whole issue about Clinton’s health.


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