While attending the September 11th commemoration ceremony in New York, Clinton left abruptly because, according to her campaign, she felt overheated and went to her daughter’s apartment.
Statement from Clinton campaign spokesman Nick Merrill: Hillary felt overheated, went to Chelsea's, feeling better pic.twitter.com/Ro5TO6Ny7H
— Bradd Jaffy (@BraddJaffy) September 11, 2016
There’s no evidence that Clinton actually fainted, as some news outlets are alleging. A video posted to Twitter, however, does show Clinton stumbling and being helped into her van. (Her doctor later released a note saying that she had diagnosed Clinton with pneumonia on Friday, and that at the ceremony Clinton became overheated and dehydrated, and is recovering well). Even so, there’s no credible medical evidence that this is a serious medical issue — President George W. Bush, after all, once fainted after choking on a pretzel, while his father fainted at state dinner in Japan (he had the flu). At the time, Bush’s doctor said “The President is human; he gets sick.”
Pivoting off of conspiracy theories that have been playing out in the media for weeks now, however, news networks immediately seized upon Clinton’s departure and began speculating about larger questions about her health.
Fox News picked it up immediately, quoting an unnamed source to allege that Clinton had a “medical episode.” The New York Post, quoting Fox News, reported the same. NBC News interrupted their normal coverage to issue a “Special report” on the incident.
“NBC News covers the latest on Hillary Clinton’s condition following reports she left the 9/11 memorial ceremony in lower Manhattan early after feeling overheated,” reads the web description of the bulletin, which featured lengthy discussion of Clinton’s health — though much of it focused on how the incident would play into the hands of ongoing speculation.
The main reason a brief spell of Clinton’s merits this kind of breathless reporting, however, is because it dovetails with the narrative of a right-wing conspiracy theory that originated in the right-wing echo-chamber and on sites like the Drudge report, 9/11 Truther site Infowars, and “voice of the alt-right” Breitbart — which is currently running three separate stories about today’s incident under the headline “Clinton Collapse”.
That story, which draws evidence from various “symptoms” such as Clinton’s habit of leaning on stools, wearing coats, and coughing, alleges that she’s so ill as to be practically on the brink of death, and might possible have brain damage — despite the fact that she maintains an active campaign schedule and regularly gives political speeches on complex issues.
In recent weeks, despite ample factual evidence that it is false (including the detailed medical report issued by her doctor last year), this conspiracy theory has moved from the shadowy corners of the internet into the mainstream press — giving it false legitimacy and leading to quick, speculative coverage like that of Clinton today. Last week, NBC News similarly covered a coughing spell by Clinton as news — who, as a human being, undeniably does cough. Buoyed by a concert of voices including talk-radio hosts, Fox news, mainstream media, and the Trump campaign, two minutes of coughing generated headlines for days.
By suggesting that there might be something particularly insidious to see, news outlets are pointing voters down a right-wing rabbit hole specifically engineered to lead them astray — and turning an ordinary story into an influential campaign issue. This is typical of how conspiracy theories spread — as more and more people buy in and repeat them, sheer density confers a sense of truth, regardless of the facts.
This is not to say that Clinton’s odd departure today doesn’t warrant coverage; she’s a presidential candidate and deserves press scrutiny. However, coverage should be supported by the facts, and put in the larger context — of which the push to paint Clinton as unwell and constant speculation about her health by pundits and other non-medical professionals is undoubtably part.
Reporters outside Chelsea's apartment asked her what happened & to come and tell them.
"It's a beautiful day in New York," she responded.
— Jake Tapper (@jaketapper) September 11, 2016
Clinton, according to reports, left her daughters apartment and walked around waving and talking to reporters. She then headed to her home in Chappaqua, New York. According to reports, her press pool was not initially accompanying her, but followed her to Westchester an hour later.
UPDATE: Clinton’s physician, Dr. Lisa Bardack, has released a statement saying that she examined Clinton on Friday in conjunction with her cough and diagnosed her with pneumonia. She was put on antibiotics. She also says that after examining Clinton today, she concluded that Clinton became overheated and dehydrated, and is now recovering.
Just in: Clinton's doctor examined her today at home after incident. Says she has pneumonia. pic.twitter.com/QR7onUuBiF
— Alex Seitz-Wald (@aseitzwald) September 11, 2016
This post has been updated with further context.