News media executives and free press advocates expressed concern today at a House congressional committee regarding the U.S. Department of Labor’s proposal to require journalists to use government-owned equipment when reporting newly released government job statistics.
“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,” said Lucy A. Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, in testimony.
Dalglish spoke at the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform’s hearing on behalf of the Sunshine in Government Initiative, a coalition of media organizations that advocates for greater government transparency, of which the Reporters Committee is a member.
At the hearing, members of Congress raised concerns over the Department of Labor's proposed policy regarding so-called "lockup" procedures, which traditionally have granted credentialed reporters – working without any outside access or communication – early access to certain job and unemployment information. In the past, journalists have been able to analyze and prepare the data on their own offline equipment until a Labor official flicks a “master switch,” transmitting the reports through news agencies’ own secure lines.
On April 10, Carl Fillichio, senior adviser for communications and public affairs for Labor, issued a new policy, which ordered media organizations to begin using government-owned hardware, software, paper, pens and internet access during the lockup periods, which are held in the department's Washington, D.C. office.
The department did not invite any input from the press when drafting its proposal, which is slated to go into effect on June 15.
Fillichio said he revised the lockout procedures because of the department's growing security concerns. The advanced technology that journalists use to prepare their financial reports can be hard to monitor and Fillichio said he is concerned that reporters can bypass the department's data embargo on their own equipment.
The media representatives who testified today told the committee that they are worried about the proposal's infringement on the freedom of the press, as well as its threat to the media’s ability to report accurately, quickly and securely.
“Under the DOL proposal, the government would own and control the reporters’ notebook. This is an unheard of intrusion of government into one of most cherished freedoms,” testified Daniel Moss, executive editor for Economy and International Government at Bloomberg News. Moss said news organizations such as Bloomberg cannot analyze and contextualize statistics without their own newsgathering equipment.
Dalglish said she was “bewildered” by the proposed order, adding that it “makes the release of market-moving information less reliable, less secure, more prone to errors and inaccuracies, and less equitable as the information reaches the public.”
Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) challenged the financial news agencies' protests to the proposal. “This is about what works for Wall Street,” she said.
Since the order was issued last month, media organizations have been in discussion with the DOL in hope of revising it, said Rob Doherty, general manager in the United States for Reuters News. Doherty added that he felt “optimistic” about a compromise, although no agreement has yet been reached.
"The department provides press lock-ups solely for the purpose of serving the general public," said Fillichio, who added that they “facilitate good journalism and a more enlightened public debate about key economic indicators.”
Labor Secretary Hilda Solis declined to testify at the hearing. In a May 8 letter to Solis, SGI Coordinator Rick Blum wrote, “Most immediately, we urge you to delay this policy change and meet with interested media representatives to discuss our concerns.”
Committee Chairman Darrell E. Issa (R-Calif.) said he agreed with much of the media’s apprehensions regarding the proposed policy.
“Undoubtedly, this impending action has serious freedom of the press implications,” said Issa.