Sean Penn shakes hand of Mexican drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman. Sean Penn photo.
By Casey Bukro
Once again, Rolling Stone managed to embarrass itself by publishing an account by surly Hollywood star Sean Penn of a jungle trip to interview Mexican drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman. Penn reported that he farted but Guzman graciously pretended he did not notice.
Although pairing a Hollywood star with one of the world’s most wanted drug lords probably sounded like a good story idea, it does not get much more exciting than Penn’s faux pas. Guzman mailed a 17-minute videotape with answers to questions Penn sent by BlackBerry messaging after they met.
An article with Penn’s byline says: “Of the many questions I’d sent El Chapo, a cameraman out of frame asks a few of them directly, paraphrases others, softens many and skips some altogether.”
Penn admits: “Without being present, I could neither control the questioning nor prod for elaborations to his responses.”
Rolling Stone calls that an “interview.”
It should know better. The magazine is still recovering from apologizing for its “Rape on Campus” story at University of Virginia, which it later admitted was a “journalistic failure that was avoidable.” The entire story, which proved to be false, was based on an interview with one person. The failures, Rolling Stone editors admitted, included faulty reporting, editing, editorial supervision and fact-checking.
Now it’s Sean Penn in the jungle. Penn said it was his idea to contact Guzman. But the article amounts to a printed “selfie.”
On the Jan. 11 PBS News Hour, moderator Judy Woodruff said “some are questioning the ethics of Rolling Stone’s methods” and “the ethics of interviewing an infamous drug lord.”
The program featured Angela Kocherga, Borderlands News Bureau director for the Arizona State University Cronkite School of Journalism, speaking on the ethics of the Rolling Stone piece.
“It raises very tricky questions about what constitutes journalism,” said Kocherga. “It raised some very troubling issues about access and what constitutes real journalism as opposed to more of a conversation, rather than what they are calling an interview.”
A former journalist, Kocherga said she covered the battle between Guzman’s Sinaloa drug cartel and the Juarez drug cartel that left about 10,000 people dead over five years in a struggle for drug traffic dominance.
Guzman “runs one of the most brutal drug cartels in Mexico,” said Kocherga, and Mexican journalists risk their lives and are killed or kidnapped for writing about organized crime and official corruption.
Yet the Rolling Stone article is “treated as an entertainment style news story,” she said.
Penn “faced none of the risks that Mexican journalists face every day,” she said. Her verdict on the piece was that “it really doesn’t reveal anything new.”
The Washington Post called the story “an epic insult to imperiled Mexican journalists.”
In short, it’s a long and rambling puff piece on a very dangerous man. Rolling Stone admitted it submitted the piece to Guzman for his approval prior to publication, which is usually not the way journalism works. In effect, the magazine surrendered control over the article to Guzman. But maybe they were considering his reputation as a killer. “The subject did not ask for any changes,” it reported.
The story starts by saying, “My head is swimming,” and goes on to say, “At 55 years old, I never learned to use a laptop. Do they still make laptops?” And he drops an F-bomb to show what a sophisticated communicator he is. The story includes his worldview musings.
Penn begins by focusing on himself, probably not surprising for a Hollywood star accustomed to taking center stage. He confesses his ineptitude, which is apparent soon enough.
Somebody should have explained to the poor guy that a true journalist keeps himself out of the story and focuses on the subject, which in this case is Guzman. Penn arranged to have a picture taken of himself shaking Guzman’s hand to prove he actually met the man.
After describing the setup and all its travails, Penn says, “there he is. Right beside the truck. The world’s most famous fugitive: El Chapo.” Guzman pulls Penn into a “compadre” hug and speaks a lengthy greeting in Spanish that Penn does not understand.
Then a dinner of tequila and tacos.
Penn agrees to send questions to Guzman, but for the moment, he does get a chance to fire off a few lame questions.
“I feel naked without pen and paper, so I only ask questions one couldn’t forget the answers to,” such as did he know Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar (yes) and does he see his mother much (all the time). Here’s a “journalist” unprepared to take notes.
After a final farewell, at which Penn confesses he passes gas, Guzman leaves. Penn says he accepts no compensation for his “journalism,” and it’s easy to see why. Penn said he and a Mexican TV and movie actress, an admirer of Guzman, paid for the trip themselves. The actress acted as intermediary and accompanied Penn on the trip.
Weeks pass before Penn gets the promised videotaped answers to his questions, or at least some of them. Video clips show a pudgy man in a blue paisley-like shirt and a baseball cap.
If there is any excitement in all of this, it is that Guzman was captured later by Mexican authorities, perhaps in part because they were able to track him through communications with various people involved in the Penn meeting. But he has been captured before, and escaped Mexican jailers. There is talk this time of extraditing him to the United States.
CNN reported Guzman’s capture, a shootout in which five of his henchmen were killed. One Mexican marine was wounded. CNN called Penn’s work “a controversial coup.” Penn said he has no regrets. The Associated Press said it was a scoop that Rolling Stone might come to regret.
El Chapo is said to be a big Hollywood fan and would like a biopic made about him. No word about who he’d like to play the role.