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Yes, Sean Penn was being a journalist when he interviewed El Chapo — a terrible one

Penn, who allowed Guzmán to read the interview before it was published, never challenged one of the world’s most wanted men to answer for the lives he has destroyed. 

Actor Sean Penn shaking hands with Mexican drug lord Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán in Mexico, in this undated Rolling Stone handout photo.
REUTERS/Rolling Stone

The “Chapo” Guzmán-Sean Penn saga that unfolded in recent days is utterly weird, fascinating — and at best unsatisfying — from both a human and a journalistic standpoint.

To review: Mexican drug lord Guzmán of the Sinaloa cartel, one of the most wanted men on Earth, escapes from a maximum security prison in July. It’s the second time he has broken out of prison — this time through a 20-by-20 inch hole in a shower, which leads to a nearly mile-long tunnel equipped with oxygen, lighting and a motorcycle on rails.

While on the run, he is in contact with Mexican actress Kate del Castillo, who once played a drug boss. In the past, she has appealed to Guzmán to use his empire to foster love, and says she trusts him more than the Mexican government. There is talk of a biopic of Guzmán’s life. Del Castillo ultimately serves as a go-between with Penn, and accompanies the actor to the mountains of western Mexico where they meet the fugitive.

Penn conducts an interview with the drug lord for Rolling Stone, which publishes it on Saturday, the day after Mexican authorities catch up with Guzmán and capture him once more. Mexican officials say electronic surveillance, probably of Penn and del Castillo, helped them narrow their search. But one well-sourced former DEA agent says the Mexican authorities told him local residents actually provided the tip that led them to Guzmán.

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Bottom line: Six months after his dramatic escape, Guzmán is back in prison. This time, given the corruption that plagues Mexican law enforcement, it appears authorities won’t stand on national pride and insist on keeping him locked up in Mexico. Chances are that he’ll eventually be extradited to the U.S. Chapo will probably die in a U.S. prison.

So, why did he do it? It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that there was a lot of hubris involved. Guzmán was pretty much where anyone would have expected him to be — close to his home turf in Sinaloa. He knew Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto needed to recapture him at all costs, that the Americans wanted him nearly as badly, and would almost certainly be helping with a lot of sophisticated surveillance gear.

But perhaps he really does feel misunderstood? Maybe he was tired of running? And maybe he knew he could run his empire just as easily from prison? We’ll probably never know.

What about the journalism?

And this nudges us toward our next point: While Sean Penn might indeed be acting as a journalist here, what he produced as a journalist isn’t good.

There is no hard-and-fast definition of who is a journalist. Reporters, thankfully, aren’t licensed. So if an actor wants to conduct an interview with a newsworthy subject and publish it, there is no reason not to consider him a journalist. And there is no reason why he should shy away from pursuing an interview with a wanted man. If, as a journalist, you can reach subjects even the police can’t reach, more power to you.

But there is a reason why good journalists do things the way they do. Half of the challenge, it is often said, is getting to the story. Penn’s celebrity status helped him to achieve that. Along the way, he provided plenty of detail about himself, and quite a lot of what he saw — some of it intriguing, some of it TMI (did we really need to know he farted while saying good night to Chapo?). 

But he never challenged one of the world’s most wanted men to answer for the lives he has destroyed — through trafficking in drugs, or violent turf wars. Sure, he asked, and he might have pressed harder if he hadn’t had to conduct the formal interview remotely at a later date. But as published, Guzmán’s justifications and denials simply stand at face value. Penn might just as well have asked about Chapo’s favorite color.

Plus, Penn committed an understandable (considering his interview subject) but nevertheless cardinal error: He let his subject vet the story before publication. Rolling Stone makes clear that happened, and that the drug lord didn’t demand any changes. But it’s still a mistake. It gives Guzmán the last word on how he is portrayed.

We don’t know whether that caused Penn to toss softballs. Maybe Chapo would have swatted away tougher questions without really answering them. But we do know that Guzmán didn’t grant the interview to a Mexican or foreign journalist who might have pressed him hard on a lot of uncomfortable subjects.

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It’s easy to imagine an editor, sorely tempted by the prospect of an exclusive interview with such a newsworthy subject, pulling the plug because of the danger and the conditions attached.

Two final points. First, was it irresponsible to pursue the interview, knowing that it might help authorities track the drug lord down? Did Penn put his subject in danger?

You have to assume that Chapo knew the score, too, and was willing to take the risk. If that’s true, Penn had no responsibility to protect Chapo from himself.  

Then, by his conduct did Penn disrespect the many journalists who have been threatened, injured or killed by drug gangs for trying to report factually on what they do? That’s the argument made here

Beat reporters get big-footed all the time by someone with a famous name and a bigger platform. But simple solidarity and a commitment to the truth dictate that the big names be humble enough to recognize and build off the work of true experts: those who take the risks to cover the topic every day without a famous name to protect them.

Was that ever a consideration for Sean Penn? What exactly was he after in the mountains of Sinaloa — and is he pleased with the result?