Source: The Examiner

Unrest is simmering in some quarters of the Washington news universe regarding changes in the way the Department of Labor (DOL) manages its pre-release media “lockups” on sensitive data like weekly jobless benefits and unemployment.

For years, journalists participating in the lockups have shown up at DOL at the appointed time, then entered a limited-access area to receive the new data and prepare news stories for release as soon as official embargoes end.

The system insures that major news organizations get the data as soon as possible and allows journalists covering the release get a jump on providing analyses and opinion about the data.

But Carl Fillichio, Labor Secretary Hilda Solis’ top communications advisor, circulated a memo earlier this week to interested media informing them that everybody is being required to re-submit their credentials requests.

Fillichio reminded participants that there are only 20-30 seats available for the lockups and that priority will be given by DOL in selecting participants to those that “are primarily journalistic enterprises.”

He also offered a one-sentence assurance that “the department will not consider editorial or political viewpoints in making credentialing decisions.”

Whatever grumbling might be occasioned by being forced to go through the credentialing  process again, the element of the Fillichio memo that has journalists worried is this paragraph:

“Second, as a measure toward enhancing security in its main lockup facility (the DOL news room), the department will supply and maintain standardized equipment with a standard configuration for all participants. This change means that privately owned computer and telephone equipment, including hardware, software, cabling, wiring and Internet and telephone lines will be replaced with equipment owned by the department.”

In other words, journalists will no longer be allowed to bring their laptops or other equipment to the lockups, they will have to use government-supplied equipment, described by Fillichio as including “a virtualized desktop running a Windows operation system, a web browser, word-processing software, an Adobe Reader application and secure file transfer capability. Equipment provided will not have wireless networking capability. Provisions will be in place for news organizations to transmit their stories over the Internet.”

The changes evidently are in response at least in part to worries that some of the non-traditional news organizations allowed in recent years to participate in the lockups may not be using their access simply for journalistic purposes.

Since the stock market can rise or fall by hundreds of points as a result of such a data release, making sure nobody gets an advance peek at the data is critical to insuring the integrity of the process.

But some news organizations worry about having to use government equipment that could compromise their editors and reporters in preparing publishable charts, consulting previous stories and charts for comparison purposes, and reviewing prior stories for context and analyses.

They are also concerned that the whole process will slow down delivery of the news at a time when unemployment is high, the economy is in the doldrums and public concerns about future job prospects are unusually high.

Delays will make it more difficult for independent analysts to understand the new data and could give White House and DOL political appointees more time to blunt the impact of the negative news resulting from the data.

In addition, Fillichio’s promise not to consider editorial or political viewpoints is somewhat less than reassuring in view of his boss’s recent appearance in a poster distributed throughout DOL show Solis arm-in-arm with Rev. Al Sharpton, solidarity-style.

There are also rumblings about transferring control of the whole process from political appointees in DOL to career employees within the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

The BLS has a spotless record of maintaining data integrity and insulation from political pressures to manipulate data content or release timing.  Solis and Fillichio are said to be quietly resisting efforts in Congress to shift control of the lockups to BLS.

Fillichio has scheduled a conference call for Monday with interested media to discuss the memo and implementation of the new system.