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MediaWatch: May 1996

Vol. Ten No. 5

Janet Cooke Award: Legal Services or Liberal Services?

To convince Congress they deserve more funding, advocates of government programs regularly highlight examples of all those the program benefits. Reporters should look for the reality. For touting the Legal Services Corporation (LSC) as if he were on staff, CBS's Terence Smith earned the Janet Cooke Award. His April 28 Sunday Morning story focused on Legal Services of Greater Miami: "They deal mostly with bread-and-butter issues: housing, employment, custody, divorce. The concept of helping the poor with their problems would seem, on the face of it, to be something most Americans could agree upon. But Legal Services is one of those hot-button issues that divides people on political, practical, and ideological grounds." CBS did not present a balanced slate of proponents and opponents, with 18 soundbites of LSC backers and three from LSC opponent Rep. Charles Taylor (R-N.C.), who revealed: "Many of the cases that I've seen are very extreme, radical areas that are being funded by the taxpayers...It is not the average elderly person being evicted from homes that you would have people believe that you defend. There's more of this radical view, I see, funded by the taxpayer." Smith never allowed Taylor to elaborate. For decades, the LSC has used its grants to fight against conservative policies. As LSC chairman, Hillary Clinton funneled taxpayer money into defeating a 1980 California ballot initiative (Proposition 9) to cut state income taxes in half. In 1983, the General Accounting Office cited the LSC for violating statutory bars against partisan activity. In 1994, The Washington Times reported the state of California was forced by the LSC-funded Western Center on Law and Poverty to revoke a 2.3 percent reduction in welfare payments, costing an estimated $5.6 million a month. They also filed successful suits to increase payments to MediCal, the state's Medicaid plan, and force the state to pay day been terminated by this particular time." 20 Smith moved on: "Barbara Goulsby is the Legal Services attorney for Damon Johnson, and 36 families who lost their possessions when Miami police suddenly evicted them from their apartment building in a drug-infested neighborhood. The city said the building was a center for drug activity." To complete the picture of victims, Smith added: "Daniel Barker, another Legal Services attorney, is helping Deborah Williams fight eviction from her apartment...He interceded with the public housing authority, which had accused her of having unauthorized persons living in the apartment." Smith asked Williams: "Where would you have been without Legal Services?...On the street?" Williams agreed: "Yes, exactly, okay?" CBS did not investigate whether LSC grantees use tax dollars to fight the eviction of drug dealers from public housing. The August 15, 1994 New York Times reported a group representing 500,000 New York tenants entered a case to back expedited eviction of drug dealers, only to be opposed by the Legal Aid Society, an LSC grantee. (New York public housing officials declared drug-related arrests in their complexes grew from 813 in 1973 to 11,092 in 1993). As Boehm testified to Congress: "A program determined to use public funds to keep drug dealers in public housing -- in the name of helping the poor -- is a program that's lost what it means to help the poor." Smith asked: "So what are the prospects for Legal Services, given the current political climate?...Charles Taylor wants to kill the program." Taylor declared: "We've been able to take it from $400 million down to 283, right at the moment. We need to take it to zero." Smith noted: "That won't happen this year. But last week Congress imposed new restrictions on Legal Service attorneys, barring them from bringing class-action suits, challenging welfare reform, and representing many immigrants." Smith did not explain why the new restrictions were necessary. Taylor's press secretary, Jack Cox, told MediaWatch the CBS story followed a formula: "Every single time we've done an interview, the reporter finds one local group, interviews a few nice little fuzzy cases where people say `I couldn't live without them,' and then they quote us saying `Zero it out.' They never let us give the justifications for zeroing it out. I sat in on the CBS interview for more than an hour. [Taylor] must have hammered home the drug-dealer issue about 40 times to get it into the piece." It didn't get in. Smith told MediaWatch he stood by his use of Taylor: "I would argue that's a very full description of his view of Legal Services." As for the story's imbalance, Smith declared, "Obviously, I think it was fair." When asked about drug-related evictions, Smith protested that he was unfamiliar with the New York case and insisted: "Taylor did not cite a single specific case. When I asked attorneys in Florida, they said they'd never represent a convicted drug pusher."