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VA returns audio tape to WAMU, 'regrets' incident

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The Department of Veterans Affairs returned an audio recording to a Washington, D.C., public radio station on Friday, three days after the equipment was illegally confiscated…

The Department of Veterans Affairs returned an audio recording to a Washington, D.C., public radio station on Friday, three days after the equipment was illegally confiscated from a reporter at a local public forum on minority veterans issues.

David Schultz, a reporter with WAMU 88.5, said VA officials at the event Tuesday demanded he turn over his audio recording of an interview he had just conducted with patient Tommie Canady.  VA officials contended that Schultz had violated Canady’s privacy by not first obtaining the patient’s signature on a release waiver. The VA also maintained that Schultz had not identified himself as a reporter.

But in a statement released Friday, VA spokeswoman Katie Roberts announced the department returned the flash drive to WAMU after reviewing the events of April 7, saying the VA "regrets this incident."  Beginning Monday, she said, the department would formally review the actions of the individuals involved.

"From day one Secretary [of Veterans Affairs Eric] Shinseki has made it a top priority to understand where within the department we can improve our processes, procedures and services," Roberts said on Sunday in another prepared statement. "We want to do a top-to-bottom review in order to learn what happened, why it happened and what lessons can be learned from the experience."

Mark McDonald, program director for WAMU, said station general manager Caryn Mathes had sent a letter to the VA asking that the tape be returned, along with an apology to WAMU and Schultz. McDonald said as far as he knew on Monday afternoon, WAMU was still waiting for a response.

Schultz’s run-in with the VA officials drew broad news media attention and prompted outcries from a variety of corners. For one, in a letter to Shinseki and Washington VA Medical Center Director Fernando Rivera, Reporters Committee Executive Director Lucy A. Dalglish on Friday objected to the VA’s actions, saying that while the attempt to ban Schultz’s interview was in itself "senseless and unnecessary," the confiscation of his equipment was a violation of a federal law, the Privacy Protection Act.

Schultz reported on WAMU Monday about the return of his flash drive and the VA’s planned review of its media policy. In one report, Schultz included the audio from the incident, in which VA public affairs official Gloria Hairston is heard interrupting Schultz’s interview with Canady and declaring that the patient needed to sign a waiver in order to speak with the reporter. 

While the incident is being reviewed by the VA, it is also of ongoing interest for Schultz. The reporter said he plans to dig further into veterans’ treatment and other concerns Canady raised. How the VA treats the press, Schultz said, is "just one aspect of what’s going on here"; the broader story "is still going on."