Sean Penn's El Chapo interview fails journalism standards and the public

Up to a week ago, the most famous non-athlete faces in the American press belonged to people with names like Trump, Cruz, Clinton and Rubio. Not now, for a few days they have been bumped aside while we deal with “El Chapo,” also known as Joaquin Guzman Loera, who, as we now know, has been either the most powerful or maybe second most powerful man in Mexico, one of the most wanted fugitives in the world, notorious drug kingpin and escape artist recently nabbed again and now awaiting extradition to the United States where, one hopes, he will be held responsible for his crimes.

The crimes include multi-ton shipments of cocaine, methamphetamine, marijuana and heroin to North America and Europe. When his gang members did not deliver on time he shot them in the head. By his own admission he is responsible for killing two or three thousand people.

But the big news was not so much his arrest but that he had been interviewed by a politically active movie star, Sean Penn, for a 10,000-word article in Rolling Stone. Mr. Penn’s journalism has grown out of his film roles, as in “Dead Man Walking,” and his social justice commitments like serving victims of the disasters in Haiti, his opposition to the Iraq war and his friendly relationship with the late Hugo Chavez of Venezuela. One of the unsympathetic New York tabloids headlines him as “Chump” Penn and “Poison Penn.”

But what does he bring to the role of interviewer-reporter? The interview as a literary form is one of the most challenging and rewarding genres of journalism. It demands meticulous preparation, a personality that wins the confidence of the interviewee and a pattern of questioning that builds toward deeper questions, some of which may surprise the disarmed subject. In some of the classic interviews the reporter is armed with only a pencil and his notebook or, without notes, he reconstructs the meeting, at least its main ideas, from memory. It also helps if the reporter has a clear set of moral principles that put the dialogue in context.

Many of Mr. Penn’s political ideals are admirable, but he starts his dialogue with Mr. Guzman with what he calls a “relative morality”: “We,” the nation of the customers who buy the drugs, he says, are as guilty as the Mexican warlords who sell them. I kept wanting to ask him, “What do you mean “we”?

Next, the American journalism community does not share his ethic that allows the subject final approval on the article. In the end, Mr. Guzman had no objections, because the encounter was not really an interview.

Accompanied by a Mexican movie and television star, Kate del Castillo, admirer of the criminal boss, Mr. Guzman’s son and another colleague, Mr. Penn flew over mountains and drove through forests, sometimes at 100 miles an hour, to the secret hideaway where Mr. Guzman and over 100 “clean-cut” young followers welcomed them warmly. They ate and drank and smiled at one another for seven hours. What is it that removes all doubts about his behavior from this man’s eyes, Mr. Penn asks himself. Is it power or “soullessness?” Shouldn’t Mr. Penn’s moral conditioning make him see how Mr. Guzman has lost his soul? All he could see was this quiet man with affection for his family, not the “big bad wolf.” They end the encounter with the plan to leave and return on the eighth day for the actual interview.

But because the police are getting closer, they cannot meet in eight days, and Mr. Penn sends a list of questions which Mr. Guzman will answer on videotape and send to Mr. Penn in the United States. The questions are softballs lobbed over the plate about their family life. It’s good. Is Mr. Guzman responsible for the high level of drug addiction in the world? No, it will exist with or without him. Do you consider yourself violent? No. Did you ever use drugs? Not in the last 20 years. In your recent escape, did you pursue freedom at any cost? All I did was ask God, and things worked out.

The “interview” is basically useless. It provides no information not already available.

The main impact of the interview, writes Azam Ahmed in The New York Times has been to feed the "persistent international image of Mexico as a nation hopelessly trapped in the vicious tides of a drug war.” Somehow the government could capture Mr. Guzman, but it could not locate 43 students who disappeared from a teacher’s college in the state of Guerrero. As Jose Fuentes Lopez, 22, a coffee shop waiter, observed, “When you see this criminal being interviewed by a world class actor you know something is not right, because everything is like a show. He is a criminal, nothing else.”

Winifred Holloway
1 year 3 months ago
When I first heard this report on NPR as I woke the morning it was reported, my first thought was that this interview, truly a bizarre event, was a cooperative sting among Rolling Stone, Penn, the Mexican government and whatever U.S. government agency was in charge of pursuing international drug lords. Maybe that's just a movie script. Maybe not. I am not wedded to my first reaction but I would need to know more before I offer an opinion on where the ethical lapses occurred. I do concur with the argument that Guzman be extradited to the States for his trial. Escaping once from prison is an unfortunate lapse. But twice?

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