MEXICO CITY — At Mexico’s largest television company, a brand consultant gave a succinct assessment: Having a woman anchor a prime-time news show could be a terrible mistake.

The survey results showed that many Mexican men would never trust a woman—least of all to Denise Merker, the middle-aged anchor chosen for the job, who was perceived as personally cold and professionally unhelpful. Was seen in

“It’s very simple, it’s a bad decision by the company,” Ms. Merker said, recalling the words the consultant told her at that meeting in 2016. “He said, ‘Rethink, this is really serious.'”

The company, Televisa, stuck with Ms. Mercer anyway and she became the most-watched news anchor in Mexico, with three times more viewers than her nearest competitor.

But now, he is in doubt about whether he is related or not.

Faced with the country’s President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who regularly uses his bully platform to mow down the press, the media in Mexico has become deeply polarized, with the most powerful man fighting for knock-downs. A lot of time is wasted in drag-out fighting in the country.

Ms. Merkar is among the few remaining prominent voices who have largely avoided being drawn into cage matches. She’s trying, she says, to adhere to a cornerstone of independent journalism: objectivity.

On Monday, Ms. Merker, 58, will step down from her on-air role at a time when that principle is under threat. Its supporters say it is a loss of objectivity in a country that is becoming increasingly divided. His critics say his approach is actually too soft and doesn’t fit Mexico’s militant media landscape today.

As the country prepares for a contentious presidential campaign, Ms. Merkar herself is beginning to recognize that maintaining her brand of restrained coverage will soon be harder than ever.

“Between now and the election, there is going to be less and less room for positions that are not black or white,” he said. “There’s going to be less room for people like me.”

Mr. López Obrador has developed an antagonistic relationship with the media since being sworn in as president in late 2018, using his bully pulpit to discredit the press by portraying critical journalists as agents of the opposition. determined to see him fail.

in a country where many The loudest voices in the news media are either loyal defenders of the president or staunch critics, with Ms. Merker hitting the middle of the road. She keeps her tone level, tries to use as few adjectives as possible, and tries to avoid “direct confrontation” with the president.

Campaigns for the 2024 presidential election begin this year, and while politics in Mexico is always a war game, the approaching contest pits bitter rivals against each other within the president’s own party. The election is expected to be particularly ugly.

“Election season is hunting season and conflict avoidance will not work,” said Carlos Bravo Rezidor, a political analyst based in Mexico City. “A television news show that doesn’t fall into that controversial vibe is condemned to be unwatchable or not relevant.”

In Mexico, militancy was not something journalism was known for when Ms. Merker came into the business. A political scientist by training – she has a master’s degree from the prestigious Sorbonne University in Paris – Ms Merker landed her first broadcasting role in 1997, interviewing politicians for an upstart network.

Her producer said it was okay that she never appeared on television.

“You’re going to say, ‘Hello, good evening,’ and then you’re going to turn around and do your interview and then you turn back and say ‘thank you,'” she recalled telling the producer.

Experts say the country was ruled by one party for decades and votes were either bought or stolen for so long that there was no need to publicly grill elected officials. This shifted, however, as elections became truly competitive and candidates suddenly saw value in persuading people to vote for them.

Its smaller and poorer network, Channel 40, took advantage. Perhaps because they were never actually forced to dodge questions, the politicians interviewed by Ms. Marker were remarkably unfiltered.

“Incredible things happened,” she said.

When Channel 40 ceased broadcasting in 2005, Televisa hired Ms. Marker to host her program.

Within months, she was at the center of the country’s biggest story.

On December 9, 2005, Televisa ran coverage of what appeared to be a dramatic arrest: police raided a farm on the outskirts of the capital and took into custody a French woman and her Mexican boyfriend, who But was accused of kidnapping several people for ransom.

But in the days that followed, Ms. Merker learned from a young Televisa reporter that the raid had been carried out. She took her reporting to Leopoldo Gomez, an executive at the company.

“I went to him and said, ‘I already have this information, what do you know about it?'” she said. “She told me, ‘I had no idea, go with it.'”

On her program, Ms. Merker later broke the story that the televised arrest of the suspects in the actual kidnapping was a re-enactment—the suspects had been arrested the day before without cameras—and the elaborate publicity stunt became an international scandal. , Transforming the new anchor into a rising star.

Nearly a decade later, when Televisa sought a new anchor for its nightly news program, Ms. Marker seemed a shrewd, if risky, choice.

Televisa was damaged by its perceived loyalty to Enrique Peña Nieto, who received positive coverage by the network when he won the presidency in 2012, but was then dogged by corruption charges. Mr. Peña Nieto’s approval ratings fell to historic lows before leaving office in 2018.

“Televisa needs to reinvent itself,” said Andrew Paxman, a journalism professor at Mexico’s Center for Research and Teaching in Economics.

Along with the rating, Mr. Paxman said, the company’s share price was falling. “He realized he needed to shake things up.”

After a bad review from Brand Consultant, Ms. Merker hired a friend, the director of a local theater school, to help her better express her feelings.

For so long, she said, she had been containing any expression that could be misinterpreted as too feminine. “I went to the other extreme of zero emotion,” she said.

So Ms. Merker worked on looking directly at the camera and showing empathy, or disbelief, or indignation, or pausing for moments to process events along with her audience.

“Some nights it feels like I’m traveling with a bunch of people and we’re seeing things together and it’s stirring something in us,” Ms. Marker said. “I try to have a small reaction to whatever we’re seeing, and it has an emotional resonance.”

But the arrival of Mr. López Obrador, who was swept into office in a landslide in 2018, has reorganized Ms. Maeker’s ties to emotion.

Mr. Lopez Obrador has displeasure Since the beginning of his term, the country’s free press has been regularly attacking critical media in daily news conferences. He names and shames columnists he does not like and maintains a weekly segment called “Who’s Who in Lies”, which aims to expose alleged fake news.

The attacks have generated a strong backlash among several media personalities, who respond to Mr López Obrador by assaulting him.

Ms. Marker sees that fiery response as a failure of journalism.

“Their anger is so deep, so personal, that they disqualify themselves from continuing to do their job professionally,” she said.

She said that she had made a conscious decision to be “more calm, less rigid”. “We’re not going to have direct talks with the president.”

However, some analysts accuse Ms Merker of Very sneaky at times – and says his approach is shaped by the interests of the juggernaut who employs him.

The government is a major source of advertising revenue for Mexican media, and while the money Televisa receives represents a tiny fraction of its income, the network is still the top recipient of those advertising dollars in the country.

“All Mexican governments have had an influence on television, and this government is no different,” said Raul Trejo Delarbre, professor of political science at the National Autonomous University in Mexico City. “Like every anchor in the company, Merker had to adapt to the company’s rules.”

Critics of the government say the moment demands a more rapid response than Ms. Mercer.

“If you fail to speak truth to power in a consistent manner, to not be part of the story and not to use epithets, don’t you become a pro?” said Denise Dresser, a professor at Mexico’s Autonomous Technological Institute.

Ms. Mercer’s friends have asked her why she isn’t more confrontational, he said. His own mother, who was not a supporter of the president, recently called him to complain about the coverage of an opposition march.

In polarized times, refusing to take sides can be lonely. “No one makes me happy,” she said. “It’s not a comfortable place to live.”

Ms. Marker will continue to executive produce her show, which will be anchored by longtime CBS correspondent Enrique Acevedo. She said she was stepping away partly because she wanted to leave the sanctuary of her high-profile role.

Being an anchor, she said, it is comforting to know that what you do matters. “It’s like solving your existential question,” she said. “I’m more tempted to risk it and do something else.”

In the end, she too could not escape the wrath of the President.

On a Thursday in December, gunmen tried to kill another prominent news anchor, Ciro Gomez Leyva, by shooting several times at his car. Mr. Gomez Leyva narrowly escaped.

The following night, Ms. Merker and other journalists released a video condemning the attack and the country’s insecurity, reading from a script she helped write. Mr. López Obrador first went on the offensive when Ms. Mercer called him out, he said.

The president suggested that she was among a group of journalists who were “spokespeople for conservatism”, part of an “elite” that earns hefty salaries and has a “mission to defend interests”.

Ms. Merker says she has never seen the clip of the president scolding her.

“I don’t see it because presidents are exceptional at making things personal, and they’re not,” she said. “They really aren’t.”

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