MEXICO CITY — At Mexico’s largest television company, the brand consultant delivered a curt assessment: Making a woman the anchor of a prime time news show could be a terrible mistake.
Survey results showed that many Mexican men would never believe a woman — least of all Denise Maerker, the middle-aged anchor chosen for the job, who was seen as personally cold and professionally untested.
“It’s very simple, this is a bad decision by the company,” Ms. Maerker recalled the consultant telling her in that meeting, in 2016. “He said, ‘Reconsider, this is really serious.’”
The company, Televisa, stuck with Ms. Maerker anyway and she went on to become the most-watched news anchor in Mexico, with three times as many viewers as her closest competitor.
But now, she’s the one with doubts about whether she belongs.
Confronting the country’s president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who regularly uses his bully pulpit to disparage the press, the media in Mexico has become deeply polarized, consumed much of the time by a knock-down-drag-out fight with the most powerful man in the country.
Ms. Maerker is among the few remaining prominent voices who has largely avoided being pulled into the cage match. She is trying, she says, to adhere to a bedrock of independent journalism: impartiality.
On Monday, Ms. Maerker, 58, will step down from her on-air role at a time when that principle is under threat. Her defenders say it’s a loss for objectivity in a country that is increasingly divided. Her critics say that her approach is really too soft and that it no longer fits in the warlike media landscape of today’s Mexico.
As the country gears up for a contentious presidential campaign, Ms. Maerker herself is starting to believe her brand of restrained coverage will soon be harder than ever to sustain.
“There is going to be less and less room, between now and the elections, for positions that are not black or white,” she said. “There is going to be less space for people like me.”
Mr. López Obrador has cultivated an antagonistic relationship with the media since being sworn in as president in late 2018, using his bully pulpit to denigrate the press by portraying critical reporters as agents of an opposition determined to see him fail.
In a country where many of the loudest voices in the news media are either loyal defenders of the president or staunch critics, Ms. Maerker comes off as middle of the road. She keeps her tone level, tries to use as few adjectives as possible, and seeks to avoid “a direct collision” with the president.
Campaigns for the 2024 presidential election will begin this year, and while politics is always a combat sport in Mexico, the approaching contest pits bitter rivals within the president’s own party against one another. The election is expected to get particularly ugly.
“Electoral season is hunting season and conflict avoidance won’t work,” said Carlos Bravo Regidor, a political analyst based in Mexico City. “A television news show that does not get into that contentious vibe is condemned not to be seen or not to be relevant.”
In Mexico, combativeness was not something journalism was known for when Ms. Maerker got into the business. A political scientist by training — she has a master’s degree from the prestigious Sorbonne University in Paris — Ms. Maerker landed her first broadcast role in 1997, interviewing politicians for an upstart network.
Her producer said it was fine that she’d never been 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 the producer telling her.
The country had been ruled by one party for decades, and votes had been either bought or stolen for so long that there was no need to publicly grill elected officials, experts said. That shifted, though, as elections became genuinely competitive and candidates, suddenly, saw value in convincing people to vote for them.
Her tiny and poor network, Channel 40, took advantage. Perhaps because they hadn’t ever really been forced to evade questions, the politicians interviewed by Ms. Maerker were remarkably unfiltered.
“Incredible things happened,” she said.
When Channel 40 went off the air in 2005, Televisa hired Ms. Maerker to host her own program.
Within a few months, she was thrust into the center of the biggest story in the country.
On Dec. 9, 2005, Televisa ran coverage of what appeared to be a dramatic arrest: The police stormed a ranch in the outskirts of the capital and detained a Frenchwoman and her Mexican boyfriend, accused of kidnapping several people for ransom.
But in the days that followed, Ms. Maerker learned, from a young reporter for Televisa, that the raid had been staged. She took her reporting to Leopoldo Gómez, an executive at the company.
“I went to him and said, ‘Here’s the information I already have, what do you know about this?’” she said. “He told me, ‘I had no idea, go with it.’”
On her program, Ms. Maerker later broke the story that the televised arrest of the suspects in the actual kidnapping had been a re-enactment — the suspects had been arrested a day earlier with no cameras present — and the elaborate publicity stunt became an international scandal, turning the new anchor into a budding star.
About a decade later, when Televisa sought a new anchor for its nightly news program, Ms. Maerker seemed a shrewd, if risky, choice.
Televisa had been damaged by its perceived allegiance to Enrique Peña Nieto, who received outsize positive coverage by the network when he won the presidency in 2012, but then became tarred by charges of corruption. Mr. Peña Nieto’s approval ratings plunged to historic lows before he left office in 2018.
“Televisa needed to reinvent itself,” said Andrew Paxman, a professor of journalism at Mexico’s Center for Research and Teaching in Economics.
The company’s share price was slipping, Mr. Paxman said, along with ratings. “They felt they needed to shake things up.”
After the poor review from the brand consultant, Ms. Maerker hired a friend, the director of a local theater school, to help her better convey her emotions.
For so long, she said, she had been containing any expressiveness that might be misconstrued as too female. “I went to the other extreme, of zero emotion,” she said.
So Ms. Maerker worked on looking directly at the camera and showing empathy, or disbelief, or indignation, or just pausing at certain moments to process events alongside her viewers.
“Some nights it’s as if I’m on a journey with a bunch of people and we’re seeing things together and it’s provoking something in us,” Ms. Maerker said. “I try to have a small reaction to what we’re seeing, and that has emotional resonance.”
But the arrival of Mr. López Obrador, who was swept into office in a landslide in 2018, has recalibrated Ms. Maerker’s relationship to emotion.
Mr. López Obrador has antagonized the nation’s independent press since the beginning of his term, routinely lashing out at critical media in daily news conferences. He names and shames columnists he doesn’t like and holds a weekly segment called “Who’s Who in Lies,” intended to expose supposed fake news.
The attacks have produced a sharp backlash among many media figures, who respond to Mr. López Obrador by trading blows with him.
Ms. Maerker sees that acerbic response as a journalistic failure.
“Their anger is so deep, so personal, that they disqualify themselves professionally from continuing to do their job,” she said.
She has made a conscious decision to be “more sober, less strident,” she said. “We aren’t going to get into a direct conversation with the president.”
Some analysts, though, accuse Ms. Maerker of being too timid at times — and say that her approach is shaped by the interests of the juggernaut that employs her.
The government is a dominant source of advertising revenue for Mexican media, and while the money Televisa gets represents a small fraction of its income, the network is still a top recipient of those ad dollars in the country.
“All Mexican governments have had influence over television, and this government is no different,” said Raúl Trejo Delarbre, a professor of political science at the National Autonomous University in Mexico City. “Just like every anchor at the company, Maerker has had to adapt to the rules of the company.”
Critics of the government say the moment calls for a sharper response than Ms. Maerker’s.
“If, for the sake of not becoming part of the story and for the sake of not using adjectives, you fail to speak truth to power in a consistent way, don’t you become an enabler?” said Denise Dresser, a professor at the Autonomous Technological Institute of Mexico.
Friends of Ms. Maerker’s have asked her why she isn’t more confrontational, she said. Her own mother, not a supporter of the president’s, called to complain about her coverage of a recent opposition march.
In polarized times, refusing to take sides can be lonely. “Nobody cheers me on,” she said. “It’s not a comfortable place to be in.”
Ms. Maerker will remain an executive producer of her show, which will be anchored by Enrique Acevedo, a longtime correspondent on CBS. She said she was stepping away partly because she wanted to leave the sanctuary of her high-profile role.
Being an anchor, she said, brings the comfort of knowing that what you do matters. “It’s like having your existential question resolved,” she said. “I’m more tempted to put that at risk and do something else.”
In the end, not even she managed to evade the president’s anger.
On a Thursday in December, gunmen tried to kill Ciro Gómez Leyva, another leading news anchor, shooting at his car several times. Mr. Gómez Leyva escaped unhurt.
The following night, Ms. Maerker and other journalists released a video condemning the attack and the country’s insecurity, reading a script she helped write. Mr. López Obrador went on the offensive, calling Ms. Maerker out for the first time, she said.
The president suggested that she was among a group of journalists who were “spokespeople of conservatism,” part of an “elite” that earns huge salaries and has “a mission to protect interests.”
Ms. Maerker says she never watched the clip of the president lashing out at her.
“I didn’t watch it, because the president is extraordinary at making things personal, and they aren’t,” she said. “They really aren’t.”