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Vet aims to keep VA honest with his watchblog

Two of the biggest news stories about the Department of Veterans Affairs in recent months didn't come from the newsrooms of the New York Times or Washington Post.

Or from any newsroom.

They came from Larry Scott's cluttered living room in Vancouver, Wash., where the Army veteran and former radio newscaster pursues a part-time vocation, a blog called VAWatchdog.org.

In an age of shrinking news organizations with ever-dwindling numbers of reporters covering the VA, Scott's 5-year-old blog is filling a role that once fell exclusively to traditional media.

He's breaking national stories — stories with an impact.

Late last year, Scott broke the news that VA employees were shredding veteran claims documents, an embarrassing revelation that ultimately led the agency to change its policy on how documents are handled.

Then last month, VAWatchdog was the first to report a VA computer bug that caused incorrect patient information to be displayed on computers, including at Bay Pines VA Medical Center in St. Petersburg.

At times, it seems as if the VA doesn't know exactly what to do with Scott, 62. He said the VA often ignores his calls.

"They do not look at me as part of the legitimate media," Scott said. "I work very hard to maintain the integrity of the Web site. I don't deal with fiction or rumors. The VA hasn't figured that out yet."

For the VA, it is getting more difficult to ignore Scott, especially when the staff of House Committee on Veterans Affairs chairman, Rep. Bob Filner, D-Calif., reads VAWatchdog.

In fact, after the blog broke the shredding story, Filner sent an e-mail to Scott promising to investigate — another Scott scoop.

VA officials did not return calls to comment on VAWatchdog.

VAWatchdog does what many blogs do. Scott includes the VA news of the day from a variety of media outlets. He offers occasional commentary. Once in a while, he even praises the VA.

Scott said he provides accurate information to help veterans "connect the dots" and understand their benefits.

"No black helicopters here," Scott said. "This is not a 'hate the VA' Web site. I think the VA provides the best health care in the United States. We point out the VA's weaknesses and hopefully stir things up enough to get people involved in the system."

After four years in the Army in the post-Vietnam era, Scott spent a career working as a radio newscaster, including a stint at WNBC in New York City. He now operates a photo restoration business with his wife, Marie.

Scott said his Web site gets 1.2 million page views per month. He sells ads and merchandise to pay expenses.

Jim Wright, 62, an Army and Navy veteran in New Port Richey, said he reads Scott's blog every day.

"The thing you've got to like about it is that he's not anti-VA," Wright said. "Some veterans are bitter and have nothing good to say about the VA. He isn't one of them. But he doesn't sugar-coat things. He holds them accountable."

Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, said amateur blogs are capable of excellent reporting.

"The danger with blogs is that there are no rules," said Rosenstiel, who is unfamiliar with VAWatchdog. "A blog that one day may do work that is very journalistic in nature the next day may have a slanderous post about someone's child being ugly."

Scott, himself a VA patient, said he recognizes that danger and works hard to get things right.

"Right now, I guess I'm an outsider," Scott said. "That's fine with me."

William R. Levesque can be reached at levesque@sptimes.com or (813) 269-5306.

Vet aims to keep VA honest with his watchblog 02/07/09 [Last modified: Saturday, February 7, 2009 3:31am]

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