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Making Reporters Use Government Equipment to Write About Jobs Numbers?

The unilateral, unprecedented move by the Labor Department with this politically critical data has First Amendment proponents up in arms.

by
Bridget Johnson

Bio

June 6, 2012 - 5:59 pm
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The deadline is closing in on a Labor Department order requiring news organizations to use government computers and equipment to distribute sensitive economic data — including the politically important and sometimes unsavory monthly jobs report.

Until now, reporters have been provided the Labor data shortly before the embargoed release time to analyze and draft their stories from a lock-up room at the department. When it’s release time, the Labor Department flips a switch to let news organizations transmit over secure lines that the wire services have paid for and installed in the lock-up room.

News organizations have been ordered to remove all of their equipment from the Labor Department by June 15 and will only be allowed to use government computers, software, and other equipment.

“Unlike any other federal agency, the Department of Labor is requiring that reporters write news articles on government owned and operated computers on a regular basis, which would give the government unfettered access to reporters notes and drafts,” Bloomberg News executive director Daniel Moss told the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee today. “No administration anywhere should have access to a reporter’s thoughts, drafts or notes as a condition for covering the news, let alone news of such importance.”

News organizations were not consulted on the “unprecedented” policy change, Moss said, but “it was presented as nonnegotiable, a fait accompli.”

The Labor Department would also require transmission over the hack-susceptible Internet instead of the secure wire transmission lines set up by the media, limit the credentialed news organizations in the room, and impose a new yet undefined “code of conduct” on reporters.

Noting that the results of the order would be “potentially catastrophic,” Moss said, “The prospect of a deliberate disruption, potential spoofing, potential market manipulation are real.”

The reliability of government lines as opposed to the equipment invested in the operation by private enterprise is also a concern, as last August the Labor Department’s website went down for an hour after the release of the monthly unemployment report. The unemployment rate then was a stagnant 9.1 percent.

“When the Department of Labor hosted a conference call on April 16 ostensibly to answer media questions on the new policy, I asked, quote, ‘what is the problem you think, you imagine this will prevent?’” Moss told the panel. “The Department of Labor’s response was, ‘I think we’re going to move on. Operator, we’ll take the next question.’”

The Labor Department made the move after a study by government-owned Sandia National Laboratories recommended changes to mitigate security risks with the potentially market-shaking data.

“A leak of this data could have negative consequences,” said Ranking Member Elijah Cummings (D-Md.). “For example, in the hands of certain traders, early access to this data, even if just by a few seconds, could allow their powerful computer trading algorithms to manipulate in markets and reap millions of dollars.”

Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), who called on the White House last night to intervene and stop the policy change, said the “unprecedented action has serious freedom of the press implications.”

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