Members of Congress have sided with the media to blast a new Labor Department policy that tightens control over the distribution of employment data, saying the new rules threaten press freedom and raise concerns of possible Big Brother government interference.
The policy — an attempt to improve data cybersecurity — would prohibit news organizations from using their own computers and telephone lines when filing stories about embargoed unemployment numbers and consumer prices from the Labor Department's Bureau of Labor Statistics. Instead, news organizations will be required to use only government-owned software and hardware.
The department currently gives journalists gathered in "lockdown rooms" the data a half-hour early, allowing reporters time to compile stories that can be published simultaneously when the information is officially released.
The Labor Department says the new policy is necessary to ensure that sensitive government information doesn't leak ahead of the embargoes. Early access to this data, even if just by a few seconds, can allow traders to unfairly manipulate markets and reap millions of dollars.
Media groups say they've long supported government procedures to guard against leaks. But at a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing on the matter Wednesday, they said the impending new rules go much too far, would trample First Amendment rights, reduce government transparency and increase — not lower — threats to market volatility.
"The media takes government interference with its work product very seriously. So does the Constitution," Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, told the panel.
Daniel Moss, Bloomberg News executive editor for economics and international government, complained the policy would give the government unfettered access to reporters' notes and drafts.
"No administration anywhere should have access to a reporters' thoughts, drafts or notes as a condition for covering the news, let alone news of such importance," he said.
Mr. Moss also said the policy threatens national security because the transmission of data would shift away from secure, dedicated lines operated by news outlets to the less-secure Internet, a "potentially catastrophic" scenario.
Bloomberg and three other news-gathering organizations — the Associated Press and Dow Jones and Reuters — have requested a meeting with the White House to voice their opposition to the pending policy change.
Committee Chairman Darrell E. Issa, a California Republican, called the unprecedented policy "wrongheaded" and demanded the Labor Department reconsider. He has pressed the Obama administration to intervene if the department doesn't halt, or at least delay, its implementation.
"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," said Mr. Issa, a relentless critic of the president.
The Labor Department defended its policy, calling it a balanced and responsible approach to fairly distribute the information while preventing the premature release of economic data.
"Technology's going to continue to change at a rapid pace and adjustments to project the integrity of our information must be made on a continuing basis," Carl Fillichio, senior adviser for the department's communications and public affairs division, told the committee. "We've laid a great foundation to move forward."
The department and major news-gathering organizations have met several times to hash out an agreement. Rob Doherty, Reuters' U.S. general manager for news, told the committee he is "optimistic" a compromise can be reached. Though he added, "We're not there yet."
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