Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Seven years, three a week - San Antonio Express-News

On Jan. 18, 2012, I wrote my first column for this newspaper.

The topic — a certain state representative’s unfortunate business association with a bodybuilding personal injury attorney accused of racketeering — was less memorable than a piece of advice dispensed to me that day by someone I had called for comment: then-state Sen. Carlos Uresti.

His counsel wasn’t exactly original. When I told Uresti I would now be writing opinion pieces, he made me feel a little like Spider-Man — or at least Peter Parker at the Daily Bugle.

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“With great power comes great responsibility,” he warned, echoing the origin story of the agile comic book hero.

Seven years later, almost to the day, I am now writing my final column for this newspaper.

A lot has changed. For one, Uresti is headed to prison stripped of his power, having been convicted last year of not wielding it responsibly. Unbelievably, I have more than 1,000 columns under my belt.

I’m now moving into the role of investigative reporter — still at the San Antonio Express-News, a place I’ve called home for the last 13 years.

Looking back, I can affirm that despite Uresti’s inability to heed his own advice, his admonishment that day was apt. I hope I wielded the power responsibly. My approach, three times a week, was simply to build an argument, whether about water policy or an elected official’s foibles, on a foundation of facts.

Doing so could be fun or formidable, depending on how the deadline gods were feeling that day. Some moments have proved particularly memorable.

There was that time in 2013 when an aide of then-Councilwoman Elisa Chan slipped me a secret recording, wherein the councilwoman expressed revulsion toward the LGBTQ community — “So disgusting!” — while discussing a proposal to update the city’s nondiscrimination ordinance. Publishing Chan’s unvarnished feelings sparked a firestorm and punctured her plans to obscure why she actually opposed the proposal.

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A year later, I was the first to share then-Mayor Julián Castro’s imminent departure to Washington, D.C., to serve in then-President Barack Obama’s Cabinet, a development that shook the city and altered its trajectory.

Sometimes to get the story, you have to show up to places uninvited. Of all the venues I was ejected from over the past seven years, I especially enjoyed getting booted from the Barn Door, where members of the business community had gathered with elected officials to discuss a pending water pipeline.

“I’m sorry, this meeting is off the record,” a developer told me on my way out — after sharing that the weekly breakfast was founded decades ago by the executive vice chair of Hearst, which is the parent company of this newspaper.

A year later, I got a scoop on that same pipeline when someone leaked a 235-page report that criticized the project and that city officials had refused to release.

Reporters get grief; it’s in the job description. For a columnist, the bad vibes are often magnified.

I will certainly never forget walking back from lunch one afternoon in 2017 to find a sizable scrum of strangers on the front steps of the newspaper loudly calling me “racist” and chanting for my immediate termination.

It felt like an alternate universe — and it was. These were supporters of Manuel Medina, then a candidate for mayor and a masterful and mendacious pied piper. True to form, Medina had led his allies to the paper to protest a column I’d written questioning his truthfulness to voters.

I spent the next hour on the wrong side of the journalistic equation, fielding questions from media, before decamping to my desk to defend myself in a column.

Not that I’m complaining.

As a columnist, I was granted the extraordinary privilege of a regular space to offer my opinion on any topic that struck me as particularly urgent.

In the relatively halcyon days of 2015, no longer amused by the antics of then-presidential candidate Donald Trump, I was able to publicly call him what I believed he had become: “dangerous.”

I embraced this freedom in local races as well. When a Texas House candidate warned of “the disconnect between conservative, Christian voters and (then-Texas House Speaker) Joe Straus,” for instance, I called the political attack what it was: anti-Semitic.

The greatest thrill, though, has been those times when I was fortunate enough to fulfill journalism’s most basic mission: being the first to share information that others would rather the reader not know.

That won’t change in my new role.

bchasnoff@express-news.net



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