U.S. Dismisses Media Objections to Economic-Release Changes
(Bloomberg) -- The U.S. Labor Department reiterated its plan to restrict journalists’ advance looks at major economic reports, without responding in detail to arguments from Bloomberg News and other media organizations that a ban on using computers in secure rooms would imperil wide market access to data.
“The new measures protect the integrity of our data and promote cost effective, wide dissemination of key economic data, by minimizing the risk of premature disclosure of the data,” Bureau of Labor Statistics Commissioner William Beach wrote in a letter Thursday to attorneys representing five news organizations.
The agency said it has had “successful data releases” in the past with online-only distribution, referring to times when lockups were canceled due to inclement weather.
The Labor Department’s website was unavailable for a period during the release of the employment report on Feb. 7, an outage that was mitigated by the news media’s ability to publish from their computers and secure lines -- bypassing the “vulnerable single point of failure” of the government’s website, according to a Feb. 11 letter from attorneys for the news organizations.
In the latest letter, Beach wrote that the department has “devoted significant resources to introducing improved technologies that strengthen our infrastructure, processing and data release capacities.”
The Labor Department said Jan. 16 it will ban computers from the room where journalists receive advance access to major economic reports such as employment and inflation figures, in an effort to ensure a level playing field.
The changes are set to take effect March 1. Absent a last-minute delay or change by the Labor Department, the news organizations face the choice of whether to take the government to court over the issue.
Currently, the department hosts “lockups” in Washington for major reports lasting 30 to 60 minutes, where journalists receive the data in a secure room, write stories on computers disconnected from the internet, and transmit them when Labor restores the connections at release time. Other electronic devices such as smartphones were already prohibited.
Attorneys for the media organizations, also including the Associated Press, Dow Jones & Co., Market News and Reuters, wrote Feb. 4 to Beach that banning computers would merely delay news organizations from filing their news stories. That would give an edge to sophisticated traders who could scrape government websites, find the relevant numbers in fractions of a second and execute trades before the data are shared with the public, according to the letter.
Chaos could well result from the delays of media filing stories, as Americans swamp government websites to get the reports first, the attorneys said, citing the failure of Department of Agriculture internet sites during the release of market-sensitive reports. The media organizations said the Labor Department failed to give public notice and get comments on the plan as required by the Administrative Procedure Act.
The news organizations also argued that the shift would also violate First Amendment press protections, the process for the change wasn’t properly followed and the department didn’t consider the effects.
Beach had originally cited a 2014 report by the department’s inspector general saying several news organizations that participate are able to profit by providing the numbers to algorithmic traders in a format that provides them an advantage.
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