Martha Mendoza is a Puliter Prize-winning Associated Press National Writer whose reports have won numerous awards and prompted Congressional hearings, Pentagon investigations and White House responses. She has reported for the AP since 1997, in Albuquerque, N.M., New York and Mexico City. A UC Santa Cruz graduate, she was a 2001 Knight Fellow at Stanford University and a 2007 Ferris Professor for Humanities at Princeton University.
A Review by Carl Harris
SANTA CRUZ, Calif. (AP) — Terrorist attacks on Silicon Valley’s power grid; the paradox of racial isolation in a diversifying town; digital spies and their reservations. Martha Mendoza, Pulitzer-winning AP journalist and UC Santa Cruz alumna, focuses many of her articles on issues pertaining to the culture and economy of Silicon Valley and the Bay Area, demonstrating a certain concern for the area’s well-being. It begs the question: how can a journalist, trained to write impartially, write pieces that still connect to real humans in meaningful ways?
The Associated Press guides their writers along four basic tenets: consistency, clarity, accuracy, and brevity (Purdue OWL). This admixture of ideals produces the tension in which Mendoza’s articles are born; accuracy fights against brevity, forcing a product that must tell the whole story but without excessive enumeration and narration. Consistency and clarity shape the contours of the resulting story, demanding a logical and easily digestible flow of information.
Mendoza’s stylistic turns emerge from these guiding forces. Her interview subjects are given wide berths in which they may speak without excessive qualification from Mendoza, leaving their words instead to stand on their own. This tendency results in subtle, nuanced stylistic turns: for example, Thomas Drake, a former staffer of the NSA, is quoted in a single-sentence paragraph, thereby framing his chilling admission with silence: “I wake up at night in a cold sweat just thinking about what’s been unleashed” (Mendoza 3.).
These frames of silence guide Mendoza not just in the austerity of the writing, but also in the stories she covers and the range of topics she explores. AP conventions, indeed the conventions of traditional journalism itself, ask of the writer to write without the ostensible guide of ideology—to write only the facts, only what happened, only what is said in interviews. In other words, to avoid bias. To do otherwise would be to write an opinion piece. But it can be said that the most ideological act is to claim to be without ideology—that ideology is operating at its fullest potential when it is unspoken, unquestioned, unseen.
Mendoza seems to be aware of her vexed relationship to journalism as an ideological structure, informed by the dynamics of power. All human beings, and thus all writers, have their own biases, and these biases emerge in human actions unconsciously. The imposition of ideological neutrality upon a journalist, itself an ideological act, is circumvented by Mendoza’s investigative style, as she lets her stories speak for themselves. A certain silence frames these stories in the same way that saying “no comment” is both a frame and a qualification and thus, a comment in itself.
An article about the wage gap in Silicon Valley presents only facts, but among these facts are quotes from financial leaders, who hang themselves with their own words. Mendoza quotes Greg Gopman, CEO of AngelHack, and Tom Perkins, a venture capitalist, who express disgust at the impoverished “trash” of San Francisco and compare the “war on the 1%” to Nazi Germany, respectively (Mendoza 1.). This is indeed the truth; these men said these things, and thus Mendoza has done nothing but report the truth. But she chose these quotes specifically, to serve as examples of the ugliness that is prosperity for the few amidst the economic stagnancy of the many. She imparts her writing with an agenda using none of her own words.
Mendoza’s reporting is as fraught as it is bare bones; she unearths an ugly truth or catches a damning word and as it is handed over to the world, she says, simply, no comment. Mendoza herself does not moralize or qualify their statements, but she provides a clear frame in which the concerns of an anxious world are brought to light. Mendoza need not make her position overt; the story takes precedence over whatever reasons she may have for the act of writing itself. The story is enough—a guiding principle of investigative journalism. Mendoza turns the anti-ideology of journalism, the avoidance of bias, on its head by presenting facts, figures, and interviews that are irrefutable. They are not opinion pieces, and yet they are not ideologically vacuous.
Who is to say what ideologies govern Mendoza’s writing? From the crucible of AP guidelines, which push her into unbiased, uncompromising factuality and brevity, emerge these hard-earned stories. What is apparent is this: a question picks at Mendoza’s mind, whether it be the other side of Silicon Valley’s economic boom, or concerns over the seemingly unregulated, unstoppable reach of the NSA, and as a journalist, she entertains and investigates the question. What results is an article: the bare facts, only what happened, only what was said.
Ultimately, it is difficult to believe that a journalist can be impartial. It is necessary for a journalist to have a good sense of what information a reader will appreciate: a sense of what inspires hope or reveals an ugly truth. Mendoza writes about an unfettered wage gap in Silicon Valley, and the complicated interplay between race and the economy in a city such as Watsonville, where a racial minority is the statistical majority. Through stories such as these, she demonstrates sincere concern for communities. Mendoza writes about NSA agents, past and present, who feel anxiety over their work; in doing so, she addresses and provides a moment of recognition for readers who feel similar anxieties. She knows that these are issues that are important not just for the people about whom these stories are written, but also for those whose lives are reflected in them.
Mendoza seems to write so as to connect with readers and provide them the information they need to structure their lives and decisions. More importantly, she provides the narratives which allow for readers to recognize their own stories and their own feelings within others: readers who, perhaps, feel the economic burdens of a wage gap caused by a booming business, or those readers whose communities are complicated interfaces of race and economics. For Mendoza to insert herself into these stories would be to muddy the relationship between the story and the reader. Mendoza herself is a part of the stories, absolutely, but she is behind it and offering it to the reader. She does not stand between the reader and the story, to tell them what to see; she hands it over and says no commennt.
1. Mendoza, Martha. “Correction: Wealth Gap-Silicon Valley story” ap.org. Associated Press, 14, Mar. 2014. Web. 15, Mar., 2014
2. Mendoza, Martha. “Silicon Valley economy back at dot-com era highs” ap.org. Associated Press, 4, Feb. 2014. Web. 15, Mar., 2014
3. Mendoza, Martha. “Some pioneers of digital spying have misgivings.” ap.org. Associated Press, 23, Jan. 2014. Web. 15, Mar., 2014
4. Mendoza, Martha. “Diversity prompts increased racial isolation.” ap.org. Associated Press, 28, Dec. 2013. Web. 15, Mar., 2014
“Associated Press Style.” Purdue OWL: Journalism and Journalistic Writing. N.p., n.d. Web. 16 Mar. 2014.<https://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/735/02/>.