The VA threatens reporter, confiscates thumb drive…all for talking to veterans about their healthcare

(RAW STORY)   A public radio reporter visiting a VA hospital earlier this week to work on a story about veterans’ healthcare was stopped by government officials mid-interview, ordered to leave the hospital and had some of his recording equipment confiscated.

David Schultz, a reporter with a local NPR affliate, WAMU 88.5, was at the Veteran Affairs Hospital in Washington, DC on Tuesday night, covering a townhall meeting on the quality of minority healthcare. In the middle of an interview with one of the veterans at the meeting on the below quality healthcare he was receiving at the hospital, Schultz was told by hospital officials to halt the interview and to turn over his recording equipment.

DC radio station WTOP reports that Gloria Hairston, an internal communications specialist with the VA, was the one to order a stop to the interview.

Hairston was joined by two other VA employees and four armed guards, who stood between Schultz and the exit, in ordering the 26-year-old reporter to hand over his equipment, which included a recorder, microphone and headphones.

“She said I wouldn’t be allowed to leave,” Schultz told WTOP. “I became worried that I was going to get arrested.

Katie Roberts, a spokeswoman for the Department of Veterans Affairs, told the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press that Schultz refused to listen to the VA officials’ request for a signed waiver by the veteran he was interview. 

Schultz was able to persuade Hairston to just confiscate the memory card of his recorder, instead of all of his equipment.

When one of the veterans who had drifted over to watch the spectacle asked Schultz for his phone number, he was stopped from handing it out by Hairston.

“I started to give it to him and then [Hairston] became irate,” Schultz said. “She said, ‘You can’t give him your phone number. You have to give me all of your equipment or I’m going to get ugly.'”

After conferring with his boss, WAMU news director Jim Asendio, by phone, Schultz handed over his memory card and left the hospital.

“I told him to give them the flash card and get out of there,” Asendio said to WTOP. “I didn’t want this to get out of hand.”

Thus far, attempts by WAMU to retrieve the flash card from the VA have been unsuccessful.

Roberts, the VA spokeswoman, is claiming that Schultz “took advantage of the patient” he was interviewing by not correctly identifying himself as a reporter, an assertion that Schultz disagrees with. She said the VA would return the flash card if the veteran Schultz was interviewing signs a consent form.

Tuesday’s incident has, unsurprisingly, not gone down well with journalists.

“When he was in the Army, the current secretary of Veterans Affairs, Gen. Eric Shinseki (USA ret.), no doubt had occasion to read the riot act to subordinate officers,” writes Art Brodsky of The Huffington Post. “It’s time for him to get into command mode again, and the subjects this time are his incompetent public relations staff, which created an embarrassing nightmare for an Administration dedicated to transparency and openness.”



VA to return reporter’s sound equipment

(MILITARY TIMES)   WASHINGTON — Amid protest from a reporters group, the Veterans Affairs Department agreed late Friday to return a radio journalist’s recording equipment that it had seized four days earlier as he attempted to interview an injured veteran about VA health care.

In a written statement to The Associated Press, VA spokeswoman Katie Roberts said the department “regrets this incident occurred” and as a result would hand back the flash drive that it took from WAMU reporter David Schultz at the VA Medical Center in Washington. WAMU is a National Public Radio affiliate in the capital.

“After reviewing all the facts surrounding the incident of April 7th and actions since, VA has arranged the return of the flash drive to WAMU,” Roberts said. “We make every effort to protect the privacy of our patients and to ensure that they are able to make informed decisions about what information they release or discuss with the public while in a VA facility.”

“The Department of Veterans Affairs regrets this incident occurred as we appreciate the interest of the press in covering veterans’ issues,” she added.

Schultz attended the public forum on Tuesday night that was held at the VA medical center’s auditorium to allow veterans to express concerns about the quality of their care. After one veteran spoke, Schultz invited him into the hallway for a recorded interview.

They were then interrupted by Gloria Hairston, a hospital public affairs officer, who said Schultz could not do the interview. Hairston demanded that Schultz hand over his recording equipment unless both he and the veteran signed consent forms allowing reporters to conduct interviews on VA property.

When Schultz refused to comply, Hairston had security officers bar him from leaving. Fearing arrest, the radio journalist handed over the memory card from his recording device, which contained hours of other interviews he had collected that were unrelated to the VA story.

Throughout the day Friday, the VA insisted that release forms must be signed as lawyers for WAMU as well as the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press called on the VA to immediately return the reporter’s equipment as well as issue an apology for the incident.

In a letter to the VA on Friday, Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee, called the VA’s actions clearly illegal. She noted that Tuesday’s episode was similar to a 2004 incident involving Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia in which federal marshals in Mississippi seized the digital recorders from reporters for The Associated Press and the Hattiesburg American.

After the AP sued, the government conceded that the Marshals Service had violated federal law when it ordered the reporters to erase their recordings of Scalia’s speech at a Hattiesburg high school. Scalia also apologized, calling the incident a misunderstanding.

“The law requires the VA to immediately return Mr. Schultz’s sound card,” Dalglish said.

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