Department of Labor proposal would force journalists to use government computers, software

Imagine the White House ordering all media organizations to remove their computers, software and cell phones from government offices and installing state-owned equipment and software. You don???t have to be a conspiracy theorist to see the problematic possibilities with that sort of arrangement.

Yet, that???s exactly what the Department of Labor is proposing (and by ???proposing??? we mean the Obama administration initially ???told??? media organizations about the impending change without allowing for any public comment.).

It currently works like this: Before the Bureau of Labor Statistics releases its monthly unemployment numbers, a select group of journalists are locked in a room and given the data a half-an-hour in advance. Reporters synthesize the information, write their stories on their own computers and wait for a Department of Labor employee to turn on the switch, which allows them to file simultaneously. Why all the restrictions? These are market-moving numbers, closely monitored by investors, and leaks could offer an unfair advantage.

What BLS wants to do now is have those journalists gather as usual in the lock-down room, but use government-issued hardware and software.

The question is, should efforts to contain lock-down room leaks be an excuse to encroach on press freedom? When speaking on the matter during a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee the week of June 4, Bloomberg News Executive Editor Dan Moss said that the BLS proposal ???threatens the First Amendment because it would literally open the reporters??? notebooks,??? by controlling the computer.

The Labor Department dismisses those concerns, explaining during a conference call that it is ???totally leveling the playing field,??? yet a spokesperson could not guarantee that media outlets would have the same connectivity.

Anyway, if leveling the playing field were the true goal, the BLS would simply release the raw data to the public without any filters.

More likely, the BLS, which has failed to offer any cogent argument for the policy change, is trying to control the political message and the flow of data. And even if it isn???t, the BLS???fairly or not???should be viewed more and more skeptically.

At one point, from 2011 to 2012, for instance, the BLS revised its estimate of seasonally adjusted jobless claims upward in 66 of 67 weeks. That, of course, can be due to incomplete survey data (probably the case), but the consistent revision in one direction is certainly odd. It also happens to be politically beneficial, considering news organizations make a far bigger deal out of initial estimates than the subsequent revisions.

Or take an embarrassing recent exchange between Acting Commissioner of the BLS John Galvin and Darrell Issa, chairman of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, regarding the administration???s definition of a ???green job:??? If you sweep the floor in a solar panel facility is that a green job? Yes. If you drive a hybrid bus? Yes. If you work at a bicycle shop? Yes. What about if you work at the Salvation Army? Yes.

And, well, you get the partisan picture.

How can anyone take an organization that offers citizens this kind of patently silly data, as in the case of green jobs, seriously? And how could we trust it to be in charge of a journalist???s computer?

Last week, Carl Fillichio, Senior Adviser for Communications at the Department of Labor, sent out an email delaying the change (initially scheduled to start July 6) to news wire services explaining, ???we are going to move the effective date on changes to the lock up. Everyone will be getting an updated schedule by early next week, if not sooner??? let me know if this satisfies your legal concerns.???

Even if the news organizations are satisfied with whatever arrangements are reached with the administration, these kinds of changes should only make citizens more skeptical of the way government disseminates information and sets a troubling precedent.


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