Rasmus Jorgensen | April 7, 2017
At Katherine Corcoran’s graduation from Notre Dame in 1981, Ronald Reagan, the newly elected president and survivor of John Hinckley Jr.’s attempt on his life, was the commencement speaker. As with other presidents taking on that job, there were protests on campus, largely due to Reagan’s support of anti-communist military forces in Central America.
“It was big news because it was his first public appearance since he had been almost killed, and so my reaction was ‘I’m going to cover this. This is news,’” says Corcoran. So instead of walking in her graduation, she covered the event, sitting with the rest of the press during the ceremony.
Corcoran credits that decision to what she learned as a journalism student under Robert Schmuhl ’70, who later founded Notre Dame’s Gallivan Program in Journalism, Ethics and Democracy. Schmuhl was a Notre Dame undergrad in the late 1960s, a period of much campus turmoil, and Corcoran remembers that students in one class asked if he had participated in any protests. He told them, ‘“Of course I didn’t march, I was a reporter, I covered it,’” she says.
She took his teaching lesson to heart. “[I]f you want to be a journalist, that’s your role. You don’t drop the pen and get involved. Your way of being involved and your service to the society is with the pen and the notebook.”
Corcoran, who recently returned to Notre Dame as a visiting fellow at the Kellogg Institute for International Studies, continued that role as an independent observer for many years after graduation. She spent more than a decade with The Mercury News in San Jose, California, and later nine years in Mexico for the Associated Press, where she went from being an editor for the Latin America region to being AP Bureau Chief for Mexico and Central America.
That job involved serious breaking news and tough decisions, including when AP broke the story in 2014 of the Mexican military executing its countrymen. Corcoran and her staff suspected something was amiss after receiving a short government press release stating that the military had been in a shootout, resulting in 22 civilians killed and one soldier injured.
“We had heard of cases like this before where they just make no sense, because if you’re in a shootout you don’t have that lopsided of a result,” she says. “But they were always in places far from Mexico City, near the border, extremely dangerous to go to. But it just sounded like another one of these cases where we suspected the army was committing extrajudicial killings.”