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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

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.”

“The abrupt nature of this change, coupled with the absence of a clear explanation and a lack of public input, raises key questions about who made this decision to implement this change and why,” Issa said. “Did that individual have the authority of law?”

Issa criticized Labor Secretary Hilda Solis for turning down, “in no uncertain terms,” the committee’s request for her to testify at the hearing. Instead, she sent other Labor officials.

“Ultimately, if you’re the secretary of Labor the buck should stop with you,” the chairman said.

Advocates of the government’s plan, including some Democrats on the panel, say it’s a matter of keeping data out of the hands of scurrilous people on Wall Street until it’s released to the public.

“Government also has a legitimate concern, after all, you know, the media are profit-making entities that have motives that go beyond just the First Amendment sometimes,” said Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.). The new security protocol at the lock-up facilities, Connolly said, “might be the motivation of the Department of Labor in these new regulations… not the hobnail voodoo government on the necks of the media trying to strangle the First Amendment.”

Rep. John Tierney (D-Mass.) needled the media representatives about how they’d like to get the data out quicker than their competitors, even though Reuters general manager Rob Doherty explained that under the current system they still can’t transmit anything until Labor lifts the embargo switch.

Issa asked Carl Fillichio, senior advisor for communications and public affairs at the Labor Department, to provide the committee with the full Sandia report. “Our people asked, and your people said no. So I’m asking you,” Issa said. “It’s very hard to look at your rules and your negotiations without knowing what was in that report.”

Fillichio said he’d get back to Issa on the request, citing security issues.

“I think we’re being very creative and very innovative and balancing our security concerns with their business and their public responsibilities to find a solution,” Fillichio said of the department’s dealings with the media.

News organizations are currently in negotiation with the Labor Department to try to arrive at a solution such as letting Labor staff install equipment owned by the news organizations in the lock-up room.

“Requiring journalists to draft and publish stories using government owned computers loaded with government-controlled software simply crosses the line the First Amendment clearly drew to separate the press from the government,” said Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

Bridget Johnson is a career journalist whose news articles and opinion columns have run in dozens of news outlets across the globe. Bridget first came to Washington to be online editor at The Hill, where she wrote The World from The Hill column on foreign policy. Previously she was an opinion writer and editorial board member at the Rocky Mountain News and nation/world news columnist at the Los Angeles Daily News. She has contributed to USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, National Review Online, Politico and more, and has myriad television and radio credits as a commentator. Bridget is Washington Editor for PJ Media.
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