Chip Minemyer: Book probes reporter's murder in Mexico, journalism's role as protector of democracy

Jan. 13—Katherine Corcoran's investigation into the 2012 murder of a reporter in Mexico reveals more than elusive answers to an intriguing mystery.

With the book "In The Mouth Of The Wolf: A Murder, A Cover-Up and the True Cost of Silencing the Press" — released in late 2022 — the former Associated Press bureau chief offers a timely look at the United States' southern neighbor nation, and spotlights the vital relationship between journalism and democracy.

"We need to start a discussion in the United States about the importance of journalism — the press, the free press," Corcoran said in a phone interview. "Do we want to go down that road? and you can see where it leads in the book — no watchdog, no independent voice, no shared concept of the truth."

The book reflects years of interviews and records searches across Mexico, as Corcoran unpacks that country's history of drugs, political corruption and violence against media professionals — focusing on the case of investigative reporter Regina Martinez, who was beaten to death in April 2012 in her Veracruz apartment.

Martinez was among reporters probing the ties between drug cartels and the Mexican government, as Corcoran shows — with journalists facing routine threats and acts of violence, or lured by bribes to write stories favorable to the narcotics dealers or powerful officials.

Corcoran was researching and writing her book as the U.S. was sliding into a period of deeper social division and media distrust — fueled by those who might benefit politically.

So her current book tour is both a promotional effort to support her work, and an opportunity to engage others in a dialogue about journalism's role in a free society.

"That was part of my motivation for writing the book," she said. "I started out writing about a murder in Mexico.

"I worked in Mexico for nine years as a journalist. Seeing everything that was going on around me, I thought I needed to write about those things — assassinations in ungodly numbers, with little or nothing being done."

Johnstown businessman Mark Pasquerilla met Corcoran in the late 1970s, when they were both undergrads at the University of Notre Dame.

Their paths crossed on a study-abroad trip to Germany.

He said her work is compelling and timely — given the debate over immigration at U.S.-Mexico border and the recent post-election riot in Brazil that drew parallels to the Jan. 6, 2021, assault on the U.S. Capitol.

"She has a grasp of how journalism, the Fourth Estate, is an important part of having a working democracy," Pasquerilla said.

Besides, Pasquerilla said, Corcoran's story is a true-crime thriller with tension and plot twists, shady characters and a quest for justice — "a good mystery."

Stories of drug-related killings and bodies found in mass graves are commonplace in Mexico. And journalists work to tell important stories in that dangerous environment.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) tracks assassinations of journalists around the globe, and reports a spike in such homicides in Mexico beginning in 2009 and climbing through a high of 19 in 2022.

Corcoran contacted Martinez's friends and media colleagues — many of whom reported being threatened themselves — as she moved to debunk government's stance that Martinez had died at the hands of a former lover rather than for political reasons.

And Corcoran grappled with the risks many journal- ists — and everyday citizens — endure in Mexico, while also seeing a nation rich in culture and natural beauty, with a "fascinating and complicated history," she said.

"Americans don't know a lot about Mexico, which is ironic since it's our next-door neighbor and it's the No. 1 tourist destination for Americans," Corcoran told me.

"People often have negative and simplistic views of Mexico. I tried to show the diversity and also the beauty of the place — despite all of the terrible things that happen."

Corcoran said she set out to name Martinez's killer, and she offers a strong theory by book's end.

She looked at relationships and potential motives for silencing the journalist.

Her conclusion, without giving everything away, was that Martinez wasn't killed over a bad relationship or for something she had written, but because she "had information that would have been even more damaging than what was published."

Traditionally in Mexico, the press is seen as the mouthpiece of the government, she said — or reporters choose the unethical path of taking bribes or accepting gifts in exchange for "positive" coverage.

"Journalists in Mexico who are the real deal have a much bigger battle in educating the readers, the consumers, on the value of the free press," she sad. "Our (U.S.) concept of the importance of the free press is eroding, where they're in the mission of trying to build up the concept of a free press."

Corcoran said Mexico's journalists often face a decision: Cover the news or keep themselves and their families safe.

"Why do they do it? They believe in journalism's value to democracy," Corcoran said.

"They believe in the people's right to know. They believe in doing that work — even in these terrible circumstances."

She said she urges U.S. reporters and news organizations to be more critical of themselves and their work — and to be more transparent with their audience members.

"We do have ethics," Corcoran said. "We do have standards. We don't just print what we hear.

"The public needs to think about where they get the information that they trust. There's the impression that the media industry, mainstream media, is bad. But there's so much good that goes on every day — such as local investigative reporting, local editorial writing.

"I was motivated because I care about what we do and what our role is," Corcoran said. "I wanted to take that to a wider audience."

Chip Minemyer is the editor and general manager of The Tribune-Democrat and, GM of The Times-News of Cumberland, Md., and CNHI regional editor for Pennsylvania, Maryland, Ohio, West Virginia and North Carolina. He can be reached at 814-532-5091. Follow him on Twitter @MinemyerChip.