NBC journalist Dasha Burns was vilified by media peers last week after noting Pennsylvania Democratic Senate candidate John Fetterman had problems communicating with her, and media insiders and experts expressed private disgust at the backlash and warned of a possible chilling effect against other reporters.

From Fetterman's wife calling for a network apology and "consequences" for Burns, to her own NBC colleagues publicly questioning her observations, to a flood of liberal journalist anger and sympathetic reports on behalf of Fetterman after her interview, Burns endured a swarm of criticism for a simple observation. As part of an industry that showed high sensitivity to attacks by figures like former President Trump and rallied around journalists he vilified, some insiders who spoke to Fox News Digital noted the comparative lack of public support for Burns.

One MSNBC insider praised her work, telling Fox News Digital that some within NBC had been "pathetic" with their criticisms of Burns and had clearly shown their bias toward Fetterman, who is running in a crucial Senate race against Republican Dr. Mehmet Oz.

Dasha Burns with Fetterman

Dasha Burns interviews John Fetterman for NBC News last week. (NBC News / YouTube)

A former NBC News producer believes the criticism directed at Burns highlights hypocrisy at the network.


"NBC News folks are thrilled when their reporters get tough on Trump or other conservatives, but when one of their reporters dares to question a Democrat, this reporter gets slammed by her own co-workers," the former NBC News producer said.

"Fetterman’s mental acuity is fair game since he’s running for United States Senate," they continued. "There’s a troubling chilling effect here, and now reporters are going to be terrified of raising this issue."

The firestorm began last week when Fetterman granted Burns a rare in-person interview since he suffered a stroke earlier this year. Burns said Fetterman had a problem understanding "small talk" before the interview, which relied on closed-captioning technology from a desktop computer so that he could read Burns’ questions in real time. Fetterman has not released his medical records, leading some medical experts to speculate that he's suffering from an auditory processing disorder called aphasia.

"In small talk before the interview, without captioning, it wasn't clear he was understanding our conversation," Burns told Lester Holt at the top of a "NBC Nightly News" report.


Atlantic article on John Fetterman (Fox News)

Burns was swiftly berated, second-guessed and criticized by other journalists — some of whom have recently interviewed Fetterman. Vox's Kara Swisher called Burns' claim "nonsense"; far-left podcast host Molly Jong-Fast declared Fetterman "understood everything" during their recent chat; and YouTube personality Brian Tyler Cohen shared his interview and suggested "the notion that he wasn’t able to understand is mind-numbingly false."


Some shamed Burns as "ableist" while others defended Fetterman, such as Burns’ own NBC News colleague Stephanie Ruhle. Fetterman’s wife, Gisele, suggested that Burns should face "consequences" for her report. Burns was even questioned on NBC's "Today" by her colleague, Savannah Guthrie, about her observation, noting that other journalists felt differently.

The Washington Post, New York Times, Associated Press, BuzzFeed and others printed critical articles and opinion pieces in the aftermath of the interview, with BuzzFeed quoting an activist who claimed that Burns had made "violence" toward the disabled more likely with her rhetoric. ABC's "The View" also ripped into her, with co-host Sunny Hostin suggesting Burns had violated some unwritten rule of journalism by talking about what Fetterman was like off-camera.

NBC News stood by Burns in a comment to Fox News Digital, and some journalists like NBC's Tom Llamas and Vox's Ben Jacobs have supported her or taken shots at her foes. Former MSNBC host Chris Matthews praised Burns' interview on MSNBC last week as he assessed the Pennsylvania race. "Morning Joe" hosts Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski also lauded her questions and reporting, as did Jonathan Lemire, noting reporters aren't supposed to be on someone's "team."

But the eruption initially over her reporting of her own observations still created a stir.

Another media insider said they felt Burns was "being excoriated wrongly" while also saying there needed to be an honest way to discuss how to treat candidates like Fetterman and their unique situations in a way that didn't stigmatize them.

New York Times

New York Times guest essay on John Fetterman interview. (Fox News)

"I thought it was wrong. I mean, I really thought it was wrong," they said, comparing it to the Salem witch trials. "We have to find a normal, healthy, constructive way to be able to talk about [health issues for candidates.] But that aside, the whole issue of going after her on her observations, which I thought were innocent and honest, was wrong."

Media watchdog Steve Krakauer, who was once an NBC page and now edits Fourth Watch, called the ordeal an "absurd media crackdown on journalistic integrity, curiosity and honesty" that is driven by a partisan agenda.


"The backlash NBC's Dasha Burns is getting for merely stating the truth is absurd on its face. But it's also telling and instructive — she likely inadvertently stepped into an arena of truth that was purposely being suppressed from the public by a complacent press trying to help Fetterman beat Oz and allow Democrats to keep the Senate," Krakauer told Fox News Digital.

"It's a warning shot — if a reporter steps out of the consensus, they will be swiftly pilloried by their peers on Twitter and elsewhere," Krakauer continued, noting that the "closest corollary" in recent memory was the coordinated suppression of the New York Post’s reporting on Hunter Biden’s laptop ahead of the 2020 presidential election. 

"Whether daring to link to the New York Post when they broke the Hunter Biden story or daring to state the fact that Fetterman can't communicate without reading from closed captioning, the threshold for journalistic bravery is getting lower and lower in our sad, current environment," Krakauer said.

Burns hasn't apologized for her reporting, and she and NBC have noted that they never called into question Fetterman's mental acuity.

Cornell Law School professor William A. Jacobson believes a useful test when judging liberal media reactions is to consider how the same people would have reacted if the party affiliations were reversed. In this case, he feels the hypothetical outcome is obvious.

"If Burns had interviewed Dr. Oz with similar small-talk difficulties and reported those problems, those lashing out at her would have praised her and insisted disclosing a cognitive problem reflected journalistic integrity. Those attacking Burns are not upset about what she did, they are upset that she did it to their guy," Jacobson told Fox News Digital.

The White House briefing room even took notice of the onslaught Burns received.

"It was a good interview, and it is disappointing that more people in our industry aren't defending a colleague," a White House reporter told Fox News Digital. "All that talk about democracy dying in darkness is cheap if we just sit back and watch her get bullied for doing her job."


A report in the left-leaning Atlantic essentially confirmed Burns' reporting on Sunday, however, with writer Elaine Godfrey noting Fetterman "seemed unable to respond all that meaningfully to on-the-fly comments from voters."

Fox News’ Joseph A. Wulfsohn contributed to this report.