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

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

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.

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.

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?

Comments (9)

  1. Submitted by Bill Schletzer on 01/12/2016 - 09:33 am.

    Not journalism

    This is more like publicity than journalism. By giving the murdering drug lord the final say, Penn becomes functionally an employee. Also the softball questions and naivety of the rambling responses by Penn turn this into a cartoon of objectivity. I have only seen quotes from this “interview”, but one article, written by a real journalist, said that Penn introduces his Penis as a character before we actually meet the murdering drug lord. He becomes like the Hunter S Thompson as portrayed in Doonsebury, Maybe the softballs were a result of his fear that he would be the next murder victim if he asked an honest, probing question.

  2. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 01/12/2016 - 10:44 am.

    Gosh, I wonder why El Chapo let a couple of star-struck stars meet him when he is responsible for killing many journalists that tried to cover him and his associates.

    Penn (AKA Danger Man) wants to be seen as a serious player in world doings.

    The story was to be told without the capture of Guzman–what would our attitude be then? Could we rely on Penn’s tale of intrigue and adventure–because in the end the tale is more about Penn than anyone else? Would his story add something we didn’t already know?

    My thought is that the DEA should add a public hearty thanks to Penn for a job well done. The Mexican government already has.

    ……Mexico’s attorney general said on Saturday that the authorities had been able to track down Mr. Guzmán because he met with actors and producers to discuss making a film about his life…..

  3. Submitted by Russ Hilbert on 01/12/2016 - 11:38 am.

    journalism

    “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.”

    In a word no. He is not a journalist even if he had his interview published by the Rolling Stone. He had no purpose to inverview Chapo whatsoever and only used the interview in an attempt to protect himself from potential prosecution. He had other motives that were his purpose. There are a lot more qualified actual journalists that could just have easily conducted an interview with Chapo. If he is a journalist then so is anyone else in the world who asks anyone a single question even if they aren’t published.

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 01/13/2016 - 09:43 am.

      “He had no purpose to interview Chapo . . .”

      If “having a purpose” is how we judge journalism, at least 80% of the people who purvey news would be disqualified. What is the “purpose” in getting a football player’s reaction to winning or losing a game?

      • Submitted by Russ Hilbert on 01/13/2016 - 10:41 am.

        purpose

        His intention was not to write an article to be published. His intention was to use his celebrity to grandstand. Not sure how that could be confused with journalism.

        • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 01/13/2016 - 11:27 am.

          And Yet

          He did get an article published, probably not by accident. True, the writing was abysmal, but it was still a published article.

          Grandstanding? I guess you missed out on the “New Journalism” that was so big for a few years.

  4. Submitted by Henk Tobias on 01/12/2016 - 08:09 pm.

    Lets be real…

    …is he a journalist? Let’s compare him to our well paid main stream journalists:
    1. Doesn’t challenge his subject.
    Check
    2. Let his subject vet the story.
    Check
    3. Softball questions.
    Check.
    Yup, anyone who is honest about the current state of Journalism in this country has to admit that Penn is just as much a journalist as any of the clowns covering the 2016 presidential race.

  5. Submitted by Sheldon Gitis on 01/13/2016 - 09:27 pm.

    Those Who Have Destroyed Lives

    “El Chapo” Guzman did not invent or institute the Prohibition of marijuana, poppy, and other agricultural products. Mr. Guzman is not responsible for the failed Drug War, nor for the violence and illness caused by illegal drugs. If ace “journalist” Mark Porubcansky wants to question those responsible for the negative consequences of the Drug War, he should ask those at the DEA how they feel about the lives they have destroyed. If he was able to live comfortably on his farm growing and selling weed legally, I suspect Mr. Guzman would be very content without his submarines, hand grenades and machine guns.

  6. Submitted by Carrie Preston on 01/19/2016 - 02:59 pm.

    Irresponsible

    Lack of professional responsibility on the part of Rolling Stone for sending Penn out as a “journalist”.

    Sean Penn is an activist and an actor but he is not a trained journalist. His passion is mistaken for intelligence.

    It makes me want to vomit when I see Penn shaking hands and socializing with a man who is responsible (directly and indirectly) for the violent deaths of thousands of men, women and children. Penn handles his subject like a drinking buddy..not a journalist.

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