A Veterans Administration media spokeswoman threatened to take a video camera from a CBS News crew after they had recorded workers using sprinklers connected to a fresh water supply line to water the lawn of the VA West Los Angeles Medical Center for several hours at a time.
A direct violation of that city’s emergency water plan due to the severe drought in that state.
In an interesting example of gotcha journalism, reporter David Goldstein and his staff had set up hidden cameras on several occasions to document the hospital flouting the ban on sprinkling times to the point that Goldstein needed to use boots in order to avoid his feet becoming soaked in the puddles being generated.
The footage shows the watering to be both much longer than 8 minutes at a time and being done between 9 a.m and 4 p.m, both violations of the emergency order that would result in fines of up to $500-a-day to a homeowner found to be doing the same thing with much less water.
While interviewing groundskeeping employees on camera about the facility’s water use, Goldstein revealed the existence of the hidden camera footage.
VA Public Affairs Office employee Lina Satele, who was standing nearby, then attempted to end the interview, saying “Can you shut that off? Or I’m going to have to confiscate your cameras,” apparently using the theory that a low-level PR flack can decide what gets recorded at the facility, which after all is federal and thus public property.
To his credit, Goldstein, who appears to be well-schooled in the law, stood his ground and responded “No, you won’t”.
Satele went to on to say “You need to stop”, but Goldstein remained firm and kept the camera rolling.
Satele later emailed the station that “The VA’s recommendation is to comply with LADWP and Governor Brown’s requirements” but did not address her unlawful attempt to censor the interview of the groundskeepers by threatening confiscation of the news crew’s equipment.
Putting aside the issue of the federal government seemingly deciding to blatantly ignore restrictions placed on everyone else in the state due to a severe water shortage, Satele’s imperious attitude is of concern here. If she feels it is perfectly within her authority to order a national news media journalist to stop filming or have his equipment taken from him, what would she and others like her be willing to do to ordinary people simply exercising their right to record activities of interest in public?
Whether one is Edward R. Murrow or Joe Q. Citizen, each has the absolute right (and some say duty) to record public employees doing their jobs in plain sight to keep government accountable for its actions. Officious bureaucrats like Lina Satele would do well to remember that fact.