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VA to Return Equipment to Radio Reporter

By Ed O'Keefe

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.”

By Ed O'Keefe  | April 10, 2009; 4:20 PM ET
Categories:  Agencies and Departments  
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Next: VA's Shinseki Orders 'Top to Bottom' Review Following Incident With Radio Reporter


Damned Bush neocons trampling on our civil liberties again! They should all be perp-walked into Federal Court, water-boarded, and thrown into a secret CIA prison!

What? Obama's people did this? Oh, nevermind.

Posted by: hisroc | April 10, 2009 4:42 PM | Report abuse

Typical VA. It should be crystal clear that the VA's concerns are with, as they always have been, covering their ass and not with Veterans.

Posted by: rebeth | April 10, 2009 4:50 PM | Report abuse

Jeez, he had a logo. Why would the VA want more?

Posted by: Tupac_Goldstein | April 10, 2009 5:33 PM | Report abuse

Hey, Gloria! Yeah, you! Gloria! Wanna try to confiscate my interview equipment from me? Come on and try it.

Posted by: scarter1 | April 10, 2009 6:04 PM | Report abuse

There's a more fundamental issue here even than the VA's behavior.

The First Amendment applies to ALL citizens, not just the media. Never has this been more importantly true than now, when we are all citizen-journalists who publish our views on Facebook, Twitter, and in comments like these.

Even apart from the question of prior restraint, the VA has NO RIGHT to ask anyone to get prior approval to engage in reporting functions at an event that is open to the public, nor do they have the right to muzzle their patients, who also have First Amendment rights not only to speak but to seek the redress of grievances -- in this case, a grievance over the government's delivery of care.

Posted by: Meridian1 | April 10, 2009 6:06 PM | Report abuse

It was actually Gloria Hairston of the VA, another VA employee, and 4 armed security guards trampling on the same Constitutional freedoms those veterans lost limbs and sanity defending. Try telling 4 armed goons blocking your exit that you won't hand over your sound card.

Here's some more from the reporter (not printed in this WaPo story):

"One of those veterans, an amputee in a wheelchair, approached Schultz and asked him for his phone number."

“I started to give it to him and then the woman {Hairston} became irate, 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. She used the phrase ‘get ugly,’” Schultz says

Here are more details...

Posted by: millionea7 | April 10, 2009 6:13 PM | Report abuse

Since when are the VA patients prisoners or children, that the VA can tell them who they may and may not talk to? This is bogus. I am a vet myself and I really resent this treatment of both the reporter and the patients who wanted to talk to him.

General Shinseki - you have promised to ensure the best possible care for our veterans. Your lame-a** bureaucrats need to deliver or get the hell out of the way, rather than stomping on their Constitutional rights and the freedoms they fought to defend.

Posted by: Lila1 | April 10, 2009 6:16 PM | Report abuse

and all liberals reading this story will think, 'good, take away the freedom of speech for all who disagree with me!!!!'

Posted by: 2xy4k9 | April 10, 2009 6:27 PM | Report abuse

BTW, every veteran and Gen Shinseki himself have sworn to support and defend the Constitution of the United States. Shame that those whose job it is to care for the veterans don't do the same.

Posted by: Lila1 | April 10, 2009 6:30 PM | Report abuse

Wow, Obama's been in office for over SEVENTY days and STILL hasn't totally overhauled the Vets Admin. and ferreted out all those pernicious 1st Amendment hating neo-con elements. What a slacker! Instead lollygagging all over the world playing 'rock star' the Prez should've stayed home to attend to important matters like cleansing the VA of loyal Bushies, choosing--finally--a dog for his girls tossing out that all-important first pitch for the local baseball team.

Posted by: free9604 | April 10, 2009 7:21 PM | Report abuse

Looks like it might be time for the IG to visit the DC VA to see what they are trying to hide.

Posted by: Dani65 | April 10, 2009 9:16 PM | Report abuse

The decision late Friday to return the equipment came just in the nick of time - I believe that if this dragged out over the long weekend, it would have been a serious blow to GEN Shinseki's credibility as he tries to get the VA back on track.

Oh, and about Mrs. Hairston: Where in the Heck did she learn to be a PAO? Under the KGB? I suggest another line of work for her.

Posted by: truyle | April 10, 2009 9:19 PM | Report abuse

Why not simply prosecute the individual who "confiscated" the property for theft?

How is it anything other than a simple, straightforward felony theft? The person admits taking it, there seems to be no question as to the facts of the case, there are witnesses, and the theft was apparently done at gunpoint.

It seems to me that Gloria Hairston could do 25 years to life for aggravated robbery. Giving the property back is a nice gesture, but it doesn't change the fact that she is nothing but a petty thug who robbed someone at gunpoint. It really is that simple. She may be a government employee but she is not a peace officer or an agent of a court. She had no more right to "seize property" than a mugger on the street... In fact, that is precisely what she is.

Posted by: jmcgill1 | April 11, 2009 3:23 AM | Report abuse

Protecting patients? It was a patient who of his own free will, was doing the interview. I hope charges are brought up on MS. Hairston and all security and police involved. Did they not hear that Bush is out of office now, nazi-fascism is over.

Posted by: honeyradio | April 12, 2009 8:23 AM | Report abuse

Clearly Ms Hairston and her immediate supervisor should be fired and the security guards need to be reprimanded for such behavior. 1.This was a public hearing. 2. this was a conversation between David Schultz, the reporter and Tommie Canady, a 56-year-old veteran. Not an official with the VA.3. She, a government official, ordered secure press equipment in which she had no right to do..
I'm glad this is getting some coverage, I first heard this on WAMU and was very disappointed in what I heard.

Posted by: mcp1 | April 12, 2009 3:16 PM | Report abuse

I think the article's summation is correct, the story is in what the VA doesn't want us to know. Is it the rantings of a sad mind or a sad tale of another breakdown in our services to our veterans?

This is another Bush problem for Obama to clean up, and given time, he will do it. Obama's budget will take effect Oct. 1, 2009. Until then, he is living with Bush's old budget which was passed earlier this year. (Bush's budget did not contain money for spending in Iraq or Afganistan.)

Obama will find the money to fix this situation and others like it, it is on their list. To move it up a notch we need a free press, and, in this case, the transparent government Obama has demanded. Patients need protection, but only rarely from themselves.

The other thing Obama listens to is us, and that can move the VA/Minority Treatment a notch up on the list. Consider following this link and making your thoughts known:


Posted by: fillybuster | April 12, 2009 5:09 PM | Report abuse

You should have seen the behavior of the FDA the next day when families of vets diagnosed with PTSD were found dead in their beds after having been given a "polypharmacy cocktail of Seroquel and two other prescription drugs" by the VA.

Many reporters there - only one talked about the drugs. The others talked about the vote of the Psychopharmacologic Committee of the FDA and the impact it would have on Astra Zeneca, the makers of Seroquel.

One family, testifying for the permitted time of three minutes only, had lost two sons - one in Iraq to the WAR, the other in his sleep. I do believe the VA denies any responsibility but what about the responsibility of the Food and Drug Administration - to protect the PUBLIC HEALTH and SAFETY of Americans???

And what about the responsibility of the mainstream media, filing stories about the bottom line of Astra Zeneca and that was all they wrote.????

Posted by: ebliversidge | April 13, 2009 9:58 AM | Report abuse

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