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Fact check: 9 claims from the Fetterman-Oz debate in Pennsylvania

By Daniel Dale, CNN

The leading candidates in the pivotal US Senate race in Pennsylvania, Democrat Lt. Gov. John Fetterman and Republican Dr. Mehmet Oz, participated Tuesday in the only debate of the race.

Some of their claims were false, misleading or missing key context. Here is a fact check of nine things they said.

Fetterman’s past position on fracking

Fetterman was asked about his past opposition to hydraulic fracturing, better known as “fracking,” a method of extracting oil and natural gas from rock formations deep underground.

Even after a debate moderator read out a Fetterman quote from 2018 in which he expressed firm opposition to fracking, Fetterman claimed that he had never opposed fracking.

“I’ve always supported fracking,” he said.

Facts First: Fetterman’s claim that he has always supported fracking is false. As reported by CNN’s KFILE team last week and noted by the debate moderator, Fetterman told a left-wing YouTube channel during his 2018 run for lieutenant governor: “I don’t support fracking, at all, and I never have.” And when he was running for the US Senate in 2016, Fetterman wrote in a comment on Reddit: “I am not pro-fracking and have stated that if we did things right in this state, we wouldn’t have fracking. The industry is a stain on our state and natural resources.”

In that Reddit comment, which was first reported by Fox, Fetterman added: “But yes, of course I worry about the viability of getting a ban on fracking done when the industry is already so entrenched in Pennsylvania. Like (fellow Democratic candidate Joe) Sestak I’ve called for the same thing — a moratorium. I signed the Food and Water Watch’s pledge to end fracking.”

A Fetterman campaign spokesperson told CNN’s KFILE earlier this month that “John has not supported a fracking moratorium or ban since Pennsylvania instituted stronger environmental rules to protect public health,” pointing to state regulations that took effect in 2016. The campaign did not explain why Fetterman said in 2018 that he didn’t support fracking “at all.”

Oz’s past position on fracking

Oz was also asked about his shifting stance on fracking. The moderator pointed to a column he wrote in 2014 that called for a halt to fracking in Pennsylvania until its health effects could be studied.

But Oz did not address that column. He claimed: “I’ve been very consistent. Fracking has been demonstrated — it’s a very old technology — to be safe. It is a lifeline for this commonwealth to be able to build wealth.”

Facts First: Oz’s claim that he has been consistent on the safety of fracking is false. Between 2014 and 2018, a series of columns Oz co-authored with another doctor repeatedly warned of what they argued were the possible negative health impacts of fracking on people who live nearby — from breathing problems to nausea to migraines to low birth weights for babies.

The publication Inside Climate News describes those warnings in detail, but we’ll give you one example here. When a reader expressed concern in 2015 about the safety of family members who lived in a part of Ohio where there was a fracking boom, Oz and the other doctor, Mike Roizen, began their answer as follows: “It’s starting to sink in with a lot of people that fracking’s practice of pumping tons of toxic liquid chemicals into the ground at extremely high pressure may have long-term, far-reaching effects on everyone. The Ohio Environmental Council has stated that ‘regulations in Ohio remain woefully inadequate when it comes to protecting human health and the environment from the radiological and chemical risks associated with fracking waste.'”

Oz’s campaign claimed to CNN in April that these columns did not represent Oz’s actual views; the campaign said that Roizen “took over sole management” of the column in 2009 and “was supposed to clearly specify” when he disagreed with Oz on an issue. Roizen issued a statement the month prior saying the same thing.

But the columns were released under both Oz’s and Roizen’s names, indicating they both approved of the content, and the material about fracking included no indication of disagreement between them.

Fetterman’s position on drug policy

Oz claimed that Fetterman wants to “legalize all hard drugs in America, including narcotics.”

Facts First: Oz’s claim is false. Fetterman advocates the legalization of marijuana, but Oz and other Republicans have presented no evidence of Fetterman calling for the legalization of all drugs. Rather, Fetterman called in 2015 for “decriminalizing across the board,” saying “I see it as a public-health issue, not a criminal issue.” Drug decriminalization is different than drug legalization. Even while attacking Fetterman, other Republicans have correctly noted that he has called for decriminalization, not legalization.

Drug legalization removes all penalties for possession of drugs. Drug decriminalization, conversely, keeps possession of drugs illegal but makes possession (or, frequently, possession below a certain threshold) a non-criminal matter. Under the Oregon policy that Oz criticized Fetterman for supporting, for example, possession of small amounts of even “hard” drugs like heroin and methamphetamine is treated as a “violation” rather than a felony or misdemeanor. A violation is subject to a fine of $100, not jail time, that is waived if the violator obtains a health assessment from a specialist in addiction or recovery.

Fetterman has also expressed support for supervised injection facilities, which seek to reduce the harm of intravenous drug use by offering clean supplies and placing trained medical personnel on site. But he has now changed his public stance on across-the-board decriminalization. His campaign spokesperson told the Philadelphia Inquirer in late September: “We need to make sure that we are locking up drug dealers who are pushing and profiting from hard drugs, while making sure that people get real help if they are addicted. But let’s be clear, John does not support decriminalizing all drugs including heroin, methamphetamines, and other hard drugs.”

Fetterman and gun violence

On the subject of crime, Fetterman spoke of his record as mayor of Braddock, a borough of fewer than 3,000 people near Pittsburgh. He said, “I ran to be mayor back in 2005 in order to fight gun violence, and that’s exactly what I did. And working with the police and working with our community, I would say I was able to stop gun violence for five-and-a-half years as mayor.”

Facts First: Fetterman’s claim is false — an exaggeration of a good-news story. Fetterman has correctly said on other occasions that nobody was killed by gun violence in Braddock over a period of more than five years — from May 2008 to September 2013 — during his 13-year tenure as mayor. But it’s not true that gun violence entirely stopped. News reports show that there were still non-fatal shootings in Braddock during the period with no deadly shootings.

CNN could not immediately obtain comprehensive data on gun violence in Braddock during Fetterman’s mayoralty.

Fetterman’s availability to the media

Oz claimed of Fetterman: “You haven’t answered questions from media once on the campaign trail, even, you know, just to show … that you can do it.”

Facts First: This Oz claim needs context; its veracity depends on how you define “on the campaign trail.” Fetterman does not take questions from members of the media at his public campaign events; campaign spokesman Joe Calvello told CNN on Wednesday that, because of the auditory processing issues caused by a stroke Fetterman suffered in May, interviews in “chaotic auditory environments” like a campaign rally site “are not workable” at the moment. During the campaign, however, Fetterman has answered numerous questions from the media in various scheduled interviews, including meetings with newspaper editorial boards. He uses closed captioning technology so he can read the questions being asked of him in interviews, as he did in this debate.

Calvello noted that Fetterman has done interviews with both the local and national press. “As we’ve said over and over again, John is healthy and he also still has a lingering auditory processing issue that his doctors expect will go away. He’s been transparent in talking openly about his health with local and national media, while also showing voters how this closed-caption technology helps him communicate more effectively,” Calvello said in an email.

Fetterman’s stance on health care

Oz claimed that Fetterman, like left-wing Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, “believes we should socialize medicine.” Oz added a bit later that it’s impossible to defend “what John Fetterman has done with socialized medicine.”

The moderator said, “Mr. Fetterman, he accused you of socialized medicine — supporting socialized medicine — what is your response?” Fetterman said: “Again, it’s the Oz rule: he’s on TV and he’s lying. I never supported any of that thing.”

Facts First: The veracity of Fetterman’s claim that he “never supported any of that thing” depends on how you define “socialized medicine.” In short: Fetterman has previously endorsed “single-payer” health care like Sanders prefers, and Republicans often call single-payer “socialized medicine,” but health policy experts often argue that single-payer is not synonymous with socialized.

In 2016 and 2017, Fetterman repeatedly touted single-payer, calling it “the ideal,” though he also expressed support for Obamacare. Under single-payer programs, like Sanders’ signature “Medicare for All” policy, health care costs are covered by a single entity (in Sanders’ care, the federal government) rather than a hodgepodge of public and private insurers. Is that “socialized medicine”? Many Republicans say yes. But independent observers often differentiate the two, saying “socialized” systems are ones where the government not only pays for patients’ care but owns the medical facilities and employs the staff.

In 2022, Fetterman’s campaign website calls it a moral duty “to guarantee quality health care coverage for every American” but says he isn’t tied to any particular approach. It reads, “In the Senate, I will support any legislation that gets us closer to the goal of universal health care coverage. I’m less fixated on what you call it, and more focused on the result: ensuring access to health care for every American.”

Fetterman’s stance on the border

Oz claimed that Fetterman “wants an open border.”

Facts First: This Oz claim is false. Fetterman has called for reforms that would make the immigration system more “humane,” including a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, but he has also called for spending on border security. His campaign website says: “We need a system that is strong, secure, and humane. In the Senate, I would support investments that go towards keeping our borders strong and preventing the flow of illegal drugs into our country. We also must work to ensure that our immigration system is humane. I support commonsense immigration reforms that will restore our country’s legacy as a nation built by immigrants.”

During the Democratic primary in April, Fetterman opposed the Biden’s administration’s plan to end the Title 42 pandemic policy, imposed under President Donald Trump, that has allowed the authorities to quickly expel many migrants. (A federal judge blocked the plan in May.)

Some Republicans appear to use the phrase “open border” non-literally, to refer to a liberal immigration policy, so different debate viewers may have understood Oz’s comment in different ways. But it is literally inaccurate.

Fetterman’s record on police funding

Oz claimed of Fetterman’s position on the police: “He’s undermined them at every level. Taken away some of their funding…”

Facts First: Oz and his campaign have provided no evidence that Fetterman has taken away funding from police. When CNN asked for any such evidence on Wednesday, the Oz campaign responded with a link that didn’t provide any. It was a link to a 2020 column in which Fetterman wrote, amid racial justice protests around the country, that more “humane” outcomes are achieved “when police are demilitarized and approach a situation with service to the community” rather than showing up at a scene “as an occupying force in riot gear.” That is not a call to defund the police, let alone proof that Fetterman actually has defunded the police.

Previous Republican attacks, including from Oz himself, have merely said that Fetterman has supporters who have supported defunding the police, not that he has defunded the police himself. Days before Election Day in the Democratic primary this year, Fetterman told CNN: “I think we should fund the police. We can’t ever turn our back or make them out to be the enemy. I’ve never been for defunding the police, just the opposite.” He repeated this stance to media outlet Semafor earlier this month, saying “it was always absurd to defund the police” and that the idea is “just wrong.”

Oz on his promotion of medical products

A moderator asked Oz about how some fellow physicians have criticized him for promoting “unproven, ill-advised, and at times potentially dangerous treatments.”

Oz defended his popular former television show, saying it offered “life-saving advice” and “high-quality information that empowered people.” When the moderator followed up shortly after, asking if he or his company made a profit from promoting those products, Oz said, “I never sold weight loss products as described in those commercials. It’s a television show, like this is a television show. So people can run commercials on the shows. And that’s a perfectly appropriate and very transparent process.”

Facts First: This Oz claim, at very least, omits important information. Criticism of Oz’s promotion of various products hasn’t centered on ads that companies have happened to run during commercial breaks on his show. Rather, critics have repeatedly noted that, as host of the program, Oz himself touted a variety of dubious products, including dubious weight loss products. The Daily Beast has written about Oz’s promotion on the show of products from a company with which he had a financial relationship.

The extent to which Oz may have gained financially from promoting dubious products on the show is not clear. The show itself generated millions for him, his financial disclosure forms show.

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