VA to Return Equipment to Radio Reporter
UPDATE 8:29 p.m. ET: Following a day of back and forth, the VA has decided to return the flash card to WAMU reporter David Schultz. The VA issued a new statement at 8:02 p.m. ET:
"The Department of Veterans Affairs regrets this incident occurred as we appreciate the interest of the press in covering Veterans’ issues. VA has a legal and moral responsibility to protect the privacy of our patients. 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. 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."
Executives and lawyers for WAMU radio are demanding an apology from the Department of Veterans Affairs and the immediate return of a reporter’s recording equipment following an incident during a public forum earlier this week at the VA Hospital in Washington.
The station contends the action was a violation of the reporter's first amendment right to gather news. The department claims the reporter did not properly identify himself nor followed necessary procedures for interviewing VA patients while at the event.
Reporter David Schultz attended the meeting Tuesday night in the hospital’s auditorium after learning about it from a VA press release. Members of the VA’s Advisory Committee on Minority Veterans organized the event to meet with concerned veterans and hear comments about care and treatment for minorities.
Army veteran Tommie Canady told the committee he had received poor treatment from the Washington hospital, according to Schultz. Intrigued by his comments, Schultz invited the veteran out into the hallway for a recorded interview.
Moments later, hospital public affairs officer Gloria Hairston approached the pair, telling Schultz he could not conduct an interview with Canady until they both signed consent forms. She summoned hospital security guards and demanded that Schultz hand over all of his equipment. After a conversation, Schultz eventually gave Hairston the flash card of his digital recorder after calling and consulting with WAMU news director Jim Asendio. He left the hospital moments later.
Schultz never properly identified himself nor obtained the consent forms necessary before speaking with Canady, according to VA spokeswoman Katie Roberts.
"We have procedures and policies in place, so that our patients can make informed decisions about what information they feel comfortable releasing or discussing with the public. That is why before we permit one-on-one interviews to be filmed or videotaped on our premises we request written consent." A reporter with American Urban Radio and a photographer with Vaughn Enterprises also attended the town hall meeting, signed consent forms and were able to interview patients, Robert said.
Anyone entering the hospital had to show personal identification and sign in with their name and phone number, Schultz said. He did not have a formal press identification badge or business cards, because he is a part-time employee of the public radio station, owned and operated by American University. Regardless, the WAMU logo appears on his bag and headphones and his recording equipment should have made his intent obvious, he said.
In a letter to the VA, WAMU General Manager Caryn G. Mathes called the VA's actions "clearly unconstitutional," stating that "Mr. Schultz's newsgathering activities and the product of his work not only are protected by the First Amendment, but he was attending a public meeting at which the VA had encouraged public discussion on the treatment it gives to minority veterans."
Barbara Cochran, president of the Radio-Television News Directors Association, agrees with Mathes. "The seizure by the government of newsgathering equipment is the kind of thing we sometimes see in dictatorships, not in the United States. For a government official to take a reporter’s equipment away while he is conducting an interview amounts to the kind of prior restraint that has been repeatedly found unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court," she wrote in a letter to VA Secretary Eric Shinseki.
The VA says Schultz can get the flash card back once he signs the necessary consent forms. But Asendio – through the advice of American University lawyers – refuses to do so. He would prefer to focus instead on the story Schultz wanted to report: the care and treatment of minority veterans. Schultz has filed three reports on the incident and Canady’s experiences with the VA.
“The story really is about him and about why the VA doesn’t want him to talk and why the VA is trying to suppress his story,” Schultz said. “I also really want my sound card back. It not only has the tape of the interview I did with Tommie Canady and the tape of Gloria telling me you can’t talk. But it also has interviews I did for other stories.”
| April 10, 2009; 4:20 PM ET
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