Department of Labor officials are being challenged by a key U.S. senator to explain their recent decision to force journalists covering unemployment and other sensitive economic news to use goverment computers and software.
"Does DOL believe that the new policy is consistent with the First Amendment? What precedents exist for forcing journalists to utilize government-owned systems and networks to report the news," Sen. Roy Blunt, R-MO, asked Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis in a letter today.
"Why shouldn’t media outlets, which view the proprietary software and systems they utilize to report the jobs data as a technologically advanced equivalent to a reporter’s notebook, be concerned about the government's ability to monitor or even censor their work," Blunt continued.
Blunt was referring to a plan made public last month by Solis' senior advisor Carl Fillichio to change the process by which a select group of journalists are allowed access to a "lock-up" to receive advances on the department's release of new data like the unemployment rate.
The journalists in the lockup are given a 30 minute advance in the secured lockup room at the Labor department so they can prepare stories for publication immediately after the new data is released. For years, the journalists involved have used their own software programs and hardware equipment.
In an April 16 telephone conference call with interested journalists, Fillichio refused to provide details of why the change was being made, saying only that "I appreciate your concern, but we're not going to comment on security issues. I certainly think the integrity and security of the department's data is our paramount concern."
He then said two journalists had committed violations of Labor's policy concerning conduct within the lockup, but he refused to say which news organizations they represented or describe the nature of the alleged violations.
Getting the data published as quickly as possible is especially vital to media organizations like Bloomberg News, and the Associated Press that Wall Street traders depend upon for information that can determine whether the stock market goes up or down, thanks to computerized trading programs that can buy or sell millions of shares in microseconds.
How the new process might affect such considerations was also among the concerns expressed by Blunt, who asked Solis in his letter how the department would defend its new equipment from being compromised by hackers.
"What specific measures is DOL taking to protect the new government-eontrolied process from failure or cyber attack? Given the market moving impact of these numbers and the largely automated processes of today’s market institutions, even a minor flaw in the timing or accuracy of this data could result in a destructive impact on global markets," Blunt said.
"The current system is built with dedicated lines and redundancies that etfectively guard against such possibilities. What coníidence should the public have that the government can duplicate these protections under its new plan," he said.
Blunt also questioned why the Labor Department is implementing the new process without allowing a public comment period.
Neither Solis nor Fillichio could be reached for comment.