Column: Penn critics should focus on El Chapo interview's real failures

This Jan. 14, 2016 image released by CBS News/60 Minutes shows Charlie Rose, left, with actor Sean Penn during an interview in Santa Monica, Calif., about Penn's meeting with Mexican drug lord Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman. The interview will air Sunday on "60 Minutes." (CBS News/60 Minutes via AP)

“Let me be clear. My article has failed.” Sean Penn provided this response when questioned by Charlie Rose regarding his Rolling Stone interview with the notorious drug lord, El Chapo Guzmán. Rose sought insight into an article which has produced a vitriolic schism in journalism spheres.

Though there are legitimate criticisms to be levied against Penn, his original motivation, to “begin a conversation about the policy of the war on drugs” is perhaps overambitious, but is not deserving of the harsh condemnation. The criticism from other journalists is, as Penn suggested to Rose, the result of “green-eyed monsters” in the industry, who would rather dismiss potential merits in order to distract from the simple, objective fact that they themselves, with their awards and prestigious employers, did not get the interview. 

Erich Schwartzel of the Wall Street Journal produced a prime example of this sort of charged journalistic response, unpacking a list of Penn’s interactions with leftist leaders and past warzone exploits, with portions of his piece dripping with the tacitly damning tone of HUAC testimony.

Though Schwartzel, a film writer, should have little concern with a political piece from Penn, he follows the trend of suggesting Penn is out of his depth wading into the high waters of journalism. He completed a sly invalidation of Penn’s non-film venture, through familiar tropes of the jealous and conceited. He failed to label Penn a journalist throughout his profile, opting for “outspoken activist” and actor, recalling his earliest role, the stoner Spicoli from Fast Times at Ridgemont High, silently implying that the two are inextricably linked.

Thus, when we think of Penn, we imagine the sort of high school pseudo-socialist with poorly formed dreads and a wrinkled Che tee, eliminating the possibility of separating Penn’s work as a journalist from his turns on the silver screen. Instead of seeing a piece meant to promote a discussion of the drug war, we subconsciously reach a damning conclusion: stoner meets pot-lord.

Critics focused most sharply on the format of the interview with El Chapo. In his piece, Penn recognized this as the essential shortcoming of his interview, with the logistics of a second meeting (for the interview itself) crumbling once El Chapo again went on the run and could not be interviewed in person. He eventually decided to “send [his] questions to El Chapo” through text to be replied to on film.

Penn acknowledges “without being present, [he] could neither control the questioning nor prod for elaborations” and thus could not be fully satisfied with the interview as complete. The logistical nightmare of trying to interview the most wanted outlaw in the Americas cannot be completely levied on Penn’s inexperience.

Penn’s piece did fail in the essential task described by the author of beginning a conversation on the drug war. Instead, we continue to debate ad hominem diatribes, missing legitimate criticisms. And there are legitimate criticisms to be levied on Mr. Penn.

Peter Holley of the Washington Post discussed (Penn’s oversights and mistakes, highlighting violent and repressive nature of drug cartels in relation to journalism and the freedom of the press. Holley quoted Alfredo Corchado, the “borderlands director” of Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism, who argued Penn did not respect his “colleagues in Mexico and throughout the world who have lost their lives fighting censorship.” 

Corchado’s criticism is legitimate; though he could not “prod” El Chapo, the potential for a response regarding the death and disappearance of journalists in Mexico, however disingenuous, should not have been overlooked. El Chapo, though he said he attempts to avoid violence in his interview, has killed many innocents, among them, journalists.

Other journalists have criticized Penn rightly for giving El Chapo final approval on the piece. According to the Charlie Rose interview, Jann Wenner, the publisher of Rolling Stone, argued giving El Chapo final approval was a “small price to pay.”

This is understated.

Though he did not ask for changes, the possibility of a megalomaniacal drug lord seeking edits was not implausible. The logistics of the interview negated the potentially disastrous effect of editing an interview, by allowing El Chapo to give rehearsed responses. The logistical nightmare made Penn’s oversight inconsequential, it does not absolve him.

Though there are legitimate concerns with aspects of this piece piece, most polemics have the distinct mark of political infighting, often impregnated with the fiery incoherence of jealousy. Hiding jealousy behind illegitimate criticism is a petty save face for those journalists who salivate at the thought of securing an interview with their own unicorn. Instead of condemning the man, critics should focus on the true failures of the piece, as well as the objective victories.


Christopher Sacco is opinion editor for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at christopher.sacco@uconn.edu.