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Saturday, April 11, 2009

Some thoughts about the Washington Post's coverage of Walter Reed Hospital; U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs returns WAMU-FM reporter's equipment three days after confiscation

My comments follow the article.

Washington Post

VA Returns WAMU Reporter's Equipment Three Days After Confiscation
By Ed O'Keefe, Washington Post Staff Writer
April 11, 2009

Officials at WAMU radio and the Department of Veterans Affairs settled a dispute last night over the confiscation of a reporter's recording equipment during a public forum this week at the VA hospital in the District.

Jim Asendio, news director at the station, said the sound card from the reporter's digital recorder was due to be turned over to him late last night, with no conditions. VA officials initially said they would return the card only if the reporter, David Schultz, signed a consent form that should have been signed before he conducted any interviews.

The station contended that confiscating the device violated Schultz's First Amendment right to gather news. The department claimed that Schultz did not identify himself or follow proper procedures for interviewing VA patients while at the event.

In a statement released last night, VA spokeswoman Katie Roberts said the department "regrets the incident" and "appreciates the press's interest in covering the VA" but also must "make every effort to protect the privacy of our patients."

Schultz said he attended the meeting Tuesday night in the hospital's auditorium after learning about the event from a VA press release. The VA's Advisory Committee on Minority Veterans organized the meeting to hear comments about the medical care received by minority veterans. After Army veteran Tommie Canady told the committee that he had received poor treatment at Washington's VA hospital, Schultz invited him into the hallway for a recorded interview.

Moments later, according to Schultz, hospital public affairs officer Gloria Hairston approached them, telling Schultz that he could not interview Canady until they both signed consent forms. She summoned hospital security guards and demanded that Schultz hand over all his equipment. After consulting with Asendio by phone, Schultz gave Hairston the recorder's flash card and left the hospital.

Roberts said yesterday that Schultz did not properly identify himself or obtain consent forms before speaking with Canady.

"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 forum, signed consent forms and were able to interview patients, Roberts said.

Anyone entering the hospital was required to show personal identification and sign in with their name and phone number, Schultz said. He said he did not have a formal press badge or business cards because he is a part-time employee of the public radio station, which is owned and operated by American University. But he said the WAMU logo on his bag, his headphones and his recording equipment should have made his intent clear.

In a letter sent to the VA on Friday afternoon, 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, agreed with Mathes. "The seizure by the government of news gathering equipment is the kind of thing we sometimes see in dictatorships, not in the United States," she wrote in a letter to VA Secretary Eric Shinseki. "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."

The VA had said Schultz could get the flash card back if he signed the consent forms. But Asendio, on the advice of American University lawyers, refused to do so and did not authorize Schultz to sign. Asendio wanted to focus on the story Schultz was reporting: medical treatment for minority veterans. Schultz has filed three reports on the incident and Canady's experiences with the VA.

"The story really is about [Canady] and about why the VA doesn't want him to talk and why the VA is trying to suppress his story," Schultz said.


In my opinion, despite perhaps being less diplomatic than was probably warranted, this doesn't excuse the fact that for years and years, the Washington Post positively snoozed while the VA/Walter Reed Hospital story was taking place just a few miles away from their HQ, and then, acted like they were the first ones to know what was going on. Sorry, they weren't Paul Revere.

The difference is that they are the WaPo, and according to the way things usually work in DC, everyone has to pretend that what the dozens of patients and their constituents families were individually telling their individual Senators and Representatives about the quality of care they were receiving, as well as the dismal physical conditions they encountered there, and what those same people then told their hometown or small-town reporters when they got home, really didn't happen.

Under this sort of premise, i.e. that it's not really an important story in the Beltway until the 
Post says it is, one that has long held sway, as the local D.C. TV stations aped whatever the
Post was writing about, it wasn't until reporters Dana PriestAnn Hull and Michel du Cille rode-in on their 'white horse' that the problems were known.

Walter Reed and Beyond

The most telling paragraph from above is this one by
Donna Shaw at AJR:
One of the places that seemed strangely subdued, though, was the New York Times. Between February 18 and March 1, the day that Army Maj. Gen. George W. Weightman was fired as commander of Walter Reed, the Times published only one editorial (February 23) and one staff-written news story (February 24, page A10), both citing the Post. To some people, it seemed odd that a major national newspaper would not weigh in more forcefully, particularly when the Post stories triggered an immediate outcry from high-ranking politicians demanding answers and action.

Frankly, things being what they are down here, judgment-wise, it's hard to even conceive of the local Miami TV stations even showing up for the sort of hard-core public policy event described above, especially if some well-known, dopey rapper or actor had been arrested on South Beach that same night.

You and I know exactly where the TV production trucks would've been, waiting for that ubiquitous LIVE shot to begin the 11 p.m. news, and it wouldn't have been outside a VA hospital in downtown Miami.

Well, that is except for Channel 10's Michael Putney or Glenna Milberg being there for TWISFThis Week in South Florida, or WFOR's I-Teamhttp://cbs4.com/iteam
who would've been at the VA meeting taking notes, filming and interviewing subjects.
But otherwise...

I think it's worth noting that nowhere in this story does it say whether or not David Schultz is an AU student who works for the station, which is my hunch thus far, since WAMU is a radio station that's licensed to AU and is right on campus, and frankly, a younger face amidst a sea of older ones at a VA event might help explain why the VA folks made a beeline towards him. (But maybe I'm wrong.).

I've actually been to WAMU dozens of times, http://wamu.org/ and listened faithfully to it
everyday for hours for over 15 years, especially Diane Rehm and Kojo Nnmadi,

In fact, I used live down the street from AU from 1988-'89, when I lived on Nebraska Ave.,
N.W., right next door to the residence of the Japanese Ambassador to the U.S., and saw
students walking towards campus in the morning while I was walking in the opposite direction
towards the Tenleytown Metro on Connecticut Avenue and my job downtown.

My home back then was also just a few blocks from the NBC News Washington bureau and
what was then the HQ for the real NCIS, the Naval Criminal Investigative Service.

Unfortunately, my friends and I never saw any NCIS agents in the immediate area who looked as ridiculously cute as Chilean-born, South Florida-raised actress Cote de Pablo.

(For more on that area, see my January 31st, 2007 South Beach Hoosier post,
When Reporters Choose Sides, Play Favorites or Chase Unfounded Rumors

By the way, for the record, at the Broward County Charter Review Committee meetings I attended last year, media folks had to sign-in just like Broward citizens were required to do before they were admitted into the County Chambers, for what was billed as a public meeting.

Speaking of the workings of Broward County government and the way things are done these days on Andrews Avenue -or not- I'll have much more to say on that in just a dew days, and trust me, it's far from positive.

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