Desperately Seeking the News 

Spies among us

Spies among us

From Nashville Scene staff reports

Baptist Hospital security personnel have secretly photographed and apparently followed Nashville Scene reporter Willy Stern, who has been working for several weeks on an investigative story about Baptist and its president, David Stringfield.

A source at Baptist provided the Scene with a copy of the photograph, which was taken behind Vandyland, a West End Avenue restaurant, on May 2.

“It was a mistake,” said Baptist spokeswoman Debby Koch. “It’s not going on anymore.”

Initially, Koch said she was unaware of the surveillance operation and was visibly shaken when shown the photograph of Stern outside Vandyland. Stern said he made a spur-of-the-moment decision to visit Vandyland on the day the photograph was taken, and he ate alone. Whoever took the photo had apparently followed Stern from the vicinity of his home.

In a later interview, Koch acknowledged that the photograph had been taken by a hospital employee. Koch said that she did not “condone” such activities and offered her apology.

Koch described the picture-taking as an “isolated incident” by an overzealous Baptist security guard “who thought he was doing the right thing.” Koch also said she has “suggested” to Baptist security that they collect all copies of any photographs of Stern and destroy them.

“They just wanted to know what [Stern] looked like,” Koch said, adding that Baptist was “absolutely not” trying to intimidate Stern or to identify any sources he has contacted in the course of his investigation.

On several occasions, Stern has visited Baptist to interview hospital employees. On the day before the photograph was taken, he was escorted off the hospital campus by two security guards.

Koch said the May 2 photograph was taken to help guards identify Stern if he visited the hospital campus again.

Sources familiar with the hospital’s security operations told the Scene that, on at least one other occasion, Baptist security personnel have investigated a person who was suspected of cooperating in a media investigation of the hospital.

Stern said last week that, before he saw the Vandyland photograph, he had not been aware of any surveillance. However, he said that two sources he had interviewed in face-to-face meetings had been contacted, within hours of their interviews, by Baptist Hospital representatives. In one instance, Stern met with the source at the source’s office; less than two hours later, the source said, he received an unexpected visit from a Baptist Hospital representative at the source’s office.

“Stalking” is a criminal offense in Tennessee. But Davidson County prosecutors said it is unlikely that the person who followed and photographed Stern could be prosecuted for stalking, unless the person had openly threatened or harassed the reporter.

Scene editor Bruce Dobie said the Scene is exploring all legal options.

“Journalists ought to be left alone to pursue their investigations,” said John Seigenthaler, chairman of the Freedom Forum First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University. According to Seigenthaler, Baptist’s actions “damage the public image of the institution and should also prompt questions about the hospital’s motives.”

Seigenthaler said that he, “like most people in business,” has “employed security guards and found them very helpful, but if I discovered that any such person had stalked, photographed, and invaded the privacy of any person in the community without my knowledge, it would be grounds for immediate dismissal.”

Seigenthaler said Stern should be concerned “if there is some misguided Baptist employee who feels hostility” toward the reporter. “If I heard someone was stalking one of my reporters, especially if it’s some loose cannon, I would be concerned,” he said. The former editor and publisher of The Tennessean said he sometimes suspected that his reporters were followed but had rarely been able to confirm it.

Koch confirmed to the Scene that the surveillance was supervised by Ed Creamer, the hospital’s former chief of security and a former Secret Service agent, who now provides consulting services for the hospital. She would not say, however, whether Creamer had actually taken the photograph. She said the decision whether to discipline Creamer, or any other employee, is an “internal matter.”

Koch said that while all employees must ultimately answer to Stringfield, Creamer’s immediate supervisor in the hospital’s organizational structure is a senior vice-president, whom she would not identify.

“We’ve heard of journalists being followed, but it’s unlikely to have it confirmed,” said Jane Kirtley, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group for journalists. This kind of surveillance “is only effective if it intimidates people,” she said. “The best way to handle it is by publicizing it and making [Baptist] the laughingstock they deserve to be.” Surveillance like this “is pretty clearly aimed at intimidating [hospital] employees or former employees” so they won’t cooperate with the reporter, Kirtley added.

Dobie said the Scene will continue its investigation of Baptist Hospital. No date has been set for the publication of the results of Stern’s investigation.

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