by Warner Todd Huston | June 11, 2012 8:37 pm
Journalists are crying foul at a new Obama policy that will deny them the right to use their own computers to write stories from economic data issued inside the halls of the Department of Labor. Instead, the DoL says, journalists will have to use government owned computers, government selected software, and government owned Internet transmission lines to write their stories about the data issued by the department.
All news organizations have been ordered to remove their computers, tools, and other electronics from the Department of Labor by June 15 and will not be allowed to bring any of their own electronics into the place from that point forward.
Until this change, the practice had been that the economic data was released to journalists ahead of the official release date in a special “lock-up” room inside the DoL. Reporters then used their own computers and software to write their draft reports and create their graphics and tables on the data. Then, once the release time for the data was reached, the DoL allowed the journalists to transmit their stories from inside the special room over Internet lines that have been installed and paid for by news media outlets.
The new policy, however, will demand that reporters use only government issued computers and Internet transmission lines from now on. DoL authorities are citing security as the reason for the policy change saying that the already stringent past practices were not secure enough.
Media organizations have expressed all sorts of worries over this draconian policy. Not only could the government now have access to the rough drafts of the journalist’s work, but there is a fear that the new transmission lines will not be able to handle the onrush of filings once the release time arrives.
Carl A. Fillichio, the department’s senior adviser for communications and public affairs in Washington, was quizzed during a conference call by media outlets if the new government owned transmission system would allow all of them to transmit their stories at the same time, but Fillichio said, “I’m not going to guarantee anything.”
Matthew Winkler, editor-in-chief of Bloomberg News, says this extreme policy is “troubling.”
There are few government reports that have the wide- ranging impact on the market as the Department of Labor statistics, and we are troubled by the degree of government restrictions on how the press can fully and accurately report this data to the public
“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.
Another troubling aspect about this new policy is that the change was made out of hand with no period of public comment. Obama’s DoL simply made the decision without informing the public or the media ahead of time.
This authoritarian aspect of the policy change also raised the eyebrows of some in Congress. As Bridget Johnson reports, Congressman Darell Issa was alarmed over the whole thing saying this “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 held a hearing recently and was critical of Labor Secretary Hilda Solis for refusing to come testify sending underlings instead. “Ultimately, if you’re the secretary of Labor the buck should stop with you,” he said.
Others are wondering why any change had to be made at all.
“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.”
Requiring all 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.
While running for President in 2008 Obama complained about the Bush Administration’s lack of transparency. While in office, however, it seems that transparency and a free and open government has been of far less importance to him.
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