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."