News media advocates told Congress the U.S. Labor Department’s plan to require journalists to use government equipment for reporting jobless figures and other economic data would violate press freedom.
“The media takes government interference with its work product very seriously,” Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, told the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee at a hearing today in Washington.
“Requiring journalists to draft and publish stories using government-owned computers loaded with government-controlled software simply crosses a line the First Amendment clearly drew to separate the press from the government,” Dalglish said.
Bloomberg News and other media organizations have opposed changes in the Labor Department procedures. Agency officials plan to tell the committee the new policy is needed to ensure that sensitive economic figures aren’t released prematurely.
“We take our security responsibilities seriously,” agency spokesman Carl Fillichio said in prepared testimony. “Today, fractions of a second can equate to millions or even billions of dollars in market movements.”
Committee Chairman Darrell Issa urged the administration to reverse its plan. “When President Obama took office, he promised the American people he’d have ‘the most transparent administration in history,’” said Issa, a California Republican. “Almost four years later, more and more it seems that by their own actions, this administration is on the wrong side of transparency.”
Issa said the Labor Department didn’t release a security analysis it says justifies the policy changes.
Under the policy, “the government would literally own reporters’ notebooks,” Bloomberg News Executive Editor Dan Moss told lawmakers at the hearing. Requiring journalists to work on government-owned computers “gives the government unfettered access to reporters’ notes and drafts,” he said.
The media organizations are in talks with the department about the policy. Rob Doherty, general manager for the U.S. of Reuters, the news division of Thomson Reuters, said he was optimistic that news organizations would work out an agreement before the planned July 6 implementation date for the new policy.
Doherty said his company’s technical staff has said it would be “nearly impossible” to be ready by then. Moss said Bloomberg may seek a court order to block the department’s requirement that media remove their private equipment by June 15 unless an agreement is signed soon.
The policy, devised to improve data security, would change a longstanding practice that lets news organizations use their own computers, phone and data lines to file and transmit stories about unemployment figures and consumer prices from so-called lock-ups at the Labor Department.
Journalists are provided the data on an embargoed basis in advance to give them time to write and edit stories from the lock-up room at the department. When the data are released, a Labor Department official flips a switch to let news organizations transmit.
The agency has ordered them to remove software, hardware and communications lines they have installed at the department. Under the new procedures, reporters would be required to use government computer equipment, software and Internet connections.
“The public has benefited enormously from the process the department currently uses,” Rick Blum, coordinator of the Sunshine in Government Initiative, wrote May 8 in a letter to Labor Secretary Hilda Solis. “The practice used to this point ensures the simultaneous release of information while also providing time that enables reporters to place the new data in meaningful context.”
‘Point of Failure’
Requiring journalists to use government-provided software, hardware and dedicated lines would inhibit journalistic independence, and “as the government grows more concerned about cybersecurity, the proposed policy would create a single point of failure,” according to the letter.
The initiative’s members include the American Society of News Editors, the Online News Association and the Society of Professional Journalists.
Fillichio, in his prepared statement, said the changes are needed because news organizations have installed “increasingly more complex computer configurations” that at times have violated the agency’s security protocols.
Also, he said, “Algorithmic trading introduces new security variables into a lock-up system not originally designed to guard against market-moving disruptions that could be caused by the release of government data to certain traders just seconds before the rest of the general public.”
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