Alumni Interview Series: Martha Mendoza

I met Associated Press journalist Martha Mendoza on a cool June morning at The Buttery in Santa Cruz, CA.  The night before the interview I had watched hours of video footage of Mendoza as she answered questions about her career in journalism and the Pulitzer Prize she won in 2000 for an exposé titled Bridge At No Gun Ri- the chilling story of a secret massacre during the Korean War.   I knew she had brown hair and kind eyes so I was searching the crowded bakery for these attributes as I waited expectantly for our interview.  I was so nervous I called my mother and told her I thought I’d lost my subject.  “I can’t find Mrs. Mendoza anywhere!”  My heart was racing and I hoped I hadn’t got the wrong location or time.  Just as I was beginning to panic Martha Mendoza tapped me on the shoulder, perhaps recognizing the flurry of a reporter with my computer bag falling off one arm, hands full with a tape recorder and scattered papers and my eyes darting through the press of customers, taking in each small detail.  We sat down outside on a low wooden bench and I was instantly calmed by Mendoza’s ease. This was my first interview but probably her millionth, and her confidence gave me the courage to begin asking questions. 



Laurel Marks:  Where did you grow up?

Martha Mendoza:  I was born in Los Angeles in 1966.  My father joined the Peace Corp soon after as an administrator so when I was about eighteen months old we moved to India.  Then we lived in Western Somalia, and then Nepal. My dad was a public advocate and an attorney and I would go to court and take huge amounts of notes.  I was an advocate.  I opened my high school yearbook the other day and out came a petition that I was getting people to sign. 

LM:  So do you think that all that travel and exposure to the courts is what inspired you to become a journalist?

MM: When I realized I wanted to be a journalist all of that made me very comfortable with it.  I definitely had a sense of global interest. 


Days at UC Santa Cruz and Beyond

LM: Was there an incident or event in your life that you witnessed or read about that drew you to journalism?

MM:  Yes.  I went from high school to UC Santa Cruz for one year and I didn’t know what I wanted to study.  I took history and calculus and chemistry and art for a year.  I lived at Kresge. And nothing was really working for me.  That next summer I went to central America with a congressional delegation which a friend of mine was helping organize and it was there that I saw people who were really in need.  I saw bodies in the streets in El Salvador and heard about the US involvement and about what was happening.  And somebody there said “we are telling you our story, what are you going to do about it?”  I thought “I don’t know, I better go back to college.  So I went back to UCSC and took a journalism class with a teacher named Con Hannelin (SPELLING?) who instantly became my mentor

LM: You created your own Journalism major at UCSC, what inspired you to go outside the boundaries of a typical major?

MM:  I had already dropped out once and journalism was the only thing that grabbed me.   There weren’t a lot of journalism classes so I did stuff like independent study and internships and took as many journalism classes as I could.

LM:  How do you think UCSC and the community can be more connected?

MM:  I think it needs to start in the schools.  I think that every single UCSC student should be required to volunteer in the public schools or the libraries.  Every kid here needs a mentor or a tutor and there are all these kids at UCSC who, although they feel really busy, could afford an hour or two a week to volunteer.  It’s a public university and they are a part of this community. 


The Pull of Santa Cruz and Journalism at UCSC

LM:  What differences do you find living and working in major cities in comparison with Santa Cruz?

MM:  I think Santa Cruz is a fascinating news community.  We support two weeklies- Metro and Good Times. You could do national news from Santa Cruz all day long! 

LM:  You and two other UCSC alums have won the Pulitzer Prize for journalism.  Do you think this should incite the university to bring back a journalism major or minor?

MM: There’s a huge, rich depth of journalists who have come from UCSC.   They definitely should bring it back.  I think that if you get an education at UCSC you have a great background for becoming a journalist because you learn to inquire at this university,  you’re forced to not just do what you’re told to do, you’re forced out of your comfort zone in so many classes  and I think those are all really important lessons that journalists can really take with them.  It’s not a coincidence that so many Pulitzer Prize winners have come out of UCSC.


The World of Journalism

LM: What do you think about the current state of journalism- in print format versus the internet? 

MM:  it’s definitely evolving.  It’s always going to be around.  There are some things that were lost but are now making a comeback, like community journalism Tweeting, the social media, all that stuff is in it’s infancy in terms of journalism, but we’ve got to get good at it.

LM:  Do you think that journalism is losing legitimacy because of so many blogs where people can claim to know something first hand?

MM:  No, I think it’s a pretty exciting and robust time, actually.  There’s a lot of information to be grabbed… 

LM:  What does it feel like when you uncover a big source or story?

MM:  I don’t get a ton of “ah-ha” moments, but when I do get them they’re very fun.  It happens probably twice a year. 

LM:  What is one of the most difficult aspects of journalism for you?

MM:  I do not like stories with kids getting killed.  It’s horrifying to me, and since becoming a mother, more so.

LM:  In what ways do you think that journalism is a form of social justice?

MM:  I think that the media plays a piece of the puzzle.  I think our role is to hold people in power accountable for what they say is going to happen.  But it’s just one piece.  The other roles are the lawmakers and the advocates.

LM:  You’ve exposed so many controversial stories, how do you personally deal with attacks on your own reporting?

MM:  I try very hard to not shock people with my reporting, I don’t do “gottcha.”  If I find out you did something wrong I call you and I say “I found out you did this, what do you say?” But certainly some people don’t like that we did the story in the first place or dispute what we found.  It’s just work so I keep it at arms length and don’t let it effect me emotionally.  We aren’t brain surgeons, this isn’t life and death stuff.  But hopefully we are saving lives, hopefully we are making a difference.  But I don’t pretend to be someone else for a story.  If we lie, cheat and steal then we’re as bad as those we’re writing about. 

LM:  What do you think is the greatest impact your work makes on others?

MM:  It’s from the small to the large.  There have been some stories that I’ve done that have got people out of jail, and stories that I have done that have got people into jail!  In a weird way, it’s when regulations get rewritten that probably has the biggest impact.

LM:  What do you think the ultimate purpose of journalism is in our society?

MM:  I think that there’s a reason why the first amendment mentions freedom of press, because the founders of this country wanted a free and robust media to watchdog everybody else. 

LM: I was incredibly moved by your piece on abortion titled  “Between a Woman and Her Doctor.” What inspired you to write such an emotional and personal piece?

MM:  That was an anomaly.  I think it was a case where I thought “I’m a writer.  I’m going through something difficult.  Writers deal with hard times by writing about them.”  So I did.  I showed it to a friend and she told me it could potentially bring about change, or at least open people’s eyes to this slice of an issue.

LM:  Have you been contacted by people about how your story has changed their outlook or some aspect of their lives?

MM:  Yes. I would say every month I’m contacted by someone who says “you story changed my life in this way or that.”  Last week a woman called and told me she had my story cut out and in her desk from four years ago and se always comes back to it.  I was in the library the other day and this thing I wrote for the Sentinel in the 1990’s was pinned up.

LM:  What was the process of getting into the world of the Associated Press?

MM:  When I finished at UCSC I sent out my resume for thirty or forty different job openings around the US. I got a job at the Sentinel for three years and I was investigating and turning up a lot of stuff.  Since it’s a small town people were getting very upset and the mayor was upset with the paper so I was encouraged to move on.  The way you get a job at the AP is by going into a bureau and taking the AP writing test and interview and then you become eligible. 


Pulitzer Prize

LM: What did winning the Pulitzer Prize mean to you?

MM:  It was great because it cast a spotlight on the story and drew more attention to that issue and to the issue of war as tool of foreign policy and the impact that has on civilians.  When they gave the prize to us they said “now you know what your obituary is going to say.”

LM:  What impact do you think historical stories such as the massacre at No Gun Ri, has on our present?

MM:  For the South Korean’s, it was a very important recognition.  One guy I interviewed had a brain tumor and then his brain tumor, a few weeks later, was found to be an infection and he was saved.  He told me he felt that God had done this for his because he had had the opportunity to speak the truth.   


Advice For Up and Coming Journalists

LM:  Do you have any advice for an up and coming journalist?

MM:  Learn a language, don’t go into it for the money, decide if this is really the lifestyle that you want.  If you like writing you’re nine tenths of the way down the road.  Study something other than journalism as well like history or environmental sciences or politics so that you have some body of knowledge.  Do internships.

LM:  Do you think you are able to put a lot of creativity into your stories?

MM:  Yes.  The novel I was reading at the time, and even poetry, has influenced the last four stories I have worked on.

LM:  Is there anyone, or anything, that inspires you when you are writing a story?

MM:  All the journalists read each other a lot and my colleagues inspire me a lot.  We are a big support to each other. 

LM:  It’s seems as though you’ve built a whole family through the AP.

MM:  Yes, but I keep it as my job, which a lot of reporters don’t.  I have a clear division between work and home. I’m always a journalist though. When I know I’m going to have to write about something I pay attention in a different way then when I’m just having a conversation with a friend.  Sometimes- this is a great feeling- I wake up in the morning and I have my lead and I have to go write it down.  And I say “thanks brain!”  I love that. 


Throughout the interview Mendoza seemed to come alive the most when I asked her about the stories she had worked on in the past, investigations that she seemed unafraid to expose, even in the face of brutal controversy.  When I stumbled over a question she would reassure me with a kind smile and wait for me to continue. Always the professional, Mendoza remained aware of ambient noise and was perfectly comfortable with her words being caught on tape.  It was an amazing experience to turn the questions back on someone so versed in the world of reporting and her honest and heartfelt answers and anecdotes made me even more passionate about my dreams of being a journalist.