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. 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.
Last week, David Schultz, a reporter for WAMU-FM, a public radio outlet in Washington, D.C., went to cover a public forum on care for minority veterans. For the April 7 meeting, Schultz, a new, part-time reporter, had with him a recorder, headphones and a microphone. (Even with that gear, he was accused of not identifying himself as a reporter.) After listening to vets speak to a packed room in public about the care they were being given, Schultz wanted to interview one of them, Tommie Canady, 56, who has a terminal pancreatic disease and who said he has been denied benefits and had poor care.
According to a number of reports, VA staff said Schultz would need a waiver from the patient in order to do an interview, and here's where it got ugly.
VA public relations officials demanded his microphone, headphones and recorder. They brought four armed, uniformed guards to enforce the order and wouldn't let Schultz leave. Schultz called his editor, who advised him to give up the recorder's storage card to the VA and then get out, figuring the event shouldn't escalate and that the radio station would get the card back.
Here's how Schultz initially described the confrontation.
Eventually, Schultz went around the VA PR machine and got the story, interviewing Canady on the phone.
So far, the VA had declined comment on the story and the storage card remains with the agency.
How can we put this gently: Unacceptable. Ridiculous. Insulting.
Heaven knows, the VA is under a great deal of pressure these days, with an aging veteran population on the one hand, and the demands of a six-year (and counting) war on the other. Even so, this incident is low-hanging fruit and Shinseki should deal with it forthwith.
Start with the concept that the vets in the hospital were there as a result of defending freedom of speech and of the press, and it's not the duty of the VA flacks (and I'm a flack in my day-job) to interfere with that. Calling the cops to keep a reporter from leaving the building until he turns over a storage card is beyond sanity.
This wasn't a top-secret briefing the reporter had infiltrated. It was a public meeting. Announced by a news release.
WAMU's news director, Jim Asendio said he tried to hand-deliver a letter to the VA on April 9, but they wouldn't accept it. Today (April 10), a courier is taking over a letter from station management, which may find its way to the executive suites. The letter says in part: "WAMU and its owner, American University, take this matter extremely seriously. Our reporter was subjected to an unlawful detention against his will, a search of our recording equipment without any probable cause, and the seizure of our sound recording medium. 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. It is inconceivable that any interest of government, let alone the Department of Veterans Affairs' desire to plan its press strategy, would ever justify the clearly unconstitutional behavior of its staff and uniformed officers".
Asendio told us he has heard that the agency is willing to release the flash card if the station signs a release.
It doesn't matter what the release says. The station shouldn't sign it. What should happen is that Shinseki should invite Schultz and Asendio to the department, return the card and apologize. And the PR people who were idiots enough to have perpetrated this assault should be sent away to learn how their jobs should really be done.
Then Schultz can get back to doing the important work of covering vets' health care - not covering it up as the VA was trying in its clumsy way to do.