Saluting the San Antonio Express-News


A version of this story ran in the July 2013 issue.

There is a lot to criticize about Texas media, including the paucity of true muckraking journalism, and especially in so-called legacy (i.e. mainstream) news circles. So when a brave project on an underreported topic appears in the San Antonio Express-News, it is worth taking note.

The San Antonio paper (disclosure: I worked there three decades ago) has been relentless in putting a human face on harrowing stories of sexual assault in the military and exposing the ways in which these brutal episodes are ignored. The work appears in a multimedia project titled “Twice Betrayed,” and it is without question one of the best recent examples of what reporting teams can do when given the time and resources to dig deep.

The seven-month project offers a hard look at some of the estimated 26,000 sexual assaults committed within the military each year, and shows how “victims who report the incidents often are retaliated against and discharged on false claims that they have mental disorders.” The investigation reveals that offenders routinely go unpunished and are often allowed to remain in the military. In some cases victims have been ordered to undergo “therapy” sessions with their alleged attackers, or were simply booted out of military careers that they once loved dearly.

The Express-News’ original pieces, featuring work by reporters Karisa King, Sig Christenson and others, spawned several follow-up stories, opinion columns and public condemnations, not just in the city but nationwide. MSNBC did a segment centered on the San Antonio paper’s findings. The New York Times referenced the paper’s reporting in a stinging indictment of the “military’s entrenched culture of sexual misconduct.”

The work out of San Antonio, which highlights several achingly poignant interviews with soldiers who decided to come forward and tell their stories, has its roots in the newspaper’s 2012 reporting on a basic-training instructor at Lackland Air Force Base accused of serially raping female soldiers. That early window into a malfunctioning military culture eventually circled back to a recurring theme: that servicewomen were being victimized twice—first by their attackers, and then again by a willfully negligent military bureaucracy.

“The response and retaliation that they often received from their chain of command aggravates their difficulties,” King told MSNBC.

One fact especially stood out as King investigated: “the striking pattern of psychiatric diagnoses that we were hearing victims talk about.” In fact King and her colleagues “did find indications that women are being diagnosed with these personality disorders and adjustment disorders at significantly higher rates than men in the military.”

Considering the city where the project was published, it is a singular work of investigative journalism. For decades San Antonio has been one of the American cities most closely aligned with the U.S. military. The military has always been the bedrock of the city’s economy, with close to 90,000 soldiers and civilians working on San Antonio’s four military bases. Some estimates suggest that military and related spending has poured more than $13 billion into the city’s coffers over the years. San Antonio even has its own Office of Military Affairs, overseen by retired Air Force Gen. Robert Murdock.

So pushing back against the city’s often impenetrable military community is a welcome sign of life at the 148-year-old daily. And proof that the investigation hit its target can be found in the fact that Sen. John Cornyn responded with a sympathetically angry op-ed that ran in the Houston Chronicle, the Austin American-Statesman and the San Antonio Express-News. Cornyn was moved by the coverage to support the Combating Sexual Assault in the Military Act, a bill sponsored by Sens. Patty Murray of Washington and Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire.

The sexual assault debacle revealed by the paper was “infuriating,” Cornyn wrote, and “with Texas being home to 15 major military installations and well over 100,000 service members, our state has a massive stake in fixing this problem.”

The Express-News story clearly did not come easy. King told the Houston Chronicle that she and Christenson initially had “terrible difficulty” convincing victims to go public. But they stayed with the story, and victims eventually agreed to go on the record. Now a project that started with a single military rape case in Texas is driving the national dialogue—and throwing sunlight onto one of the nation’s darkest secrets.