Who says Sean Penn isn’t a real journalist?

Photo: AP

Sean Penn’s career as a journalist is not without its achievements. Over the years, Penn has scored interviews with President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela and Raúl Castro of Cuba. He has pushed up against authoritarian governments, like the time in 2005 when he had his camera confiscated by Iranian officials while on assignment in Tehran for The San Francisco Chronicle.

Penn’s bon vivant approach rejects the rules of conventional journalism. He styles himself as more intrepid, more courageous, more resourceful, and more independent than mainstream reporters. His contempt for the media and its role is even more pronounced when he is the subject of its scrutiny. In 2010, he  physically assaulted photographers who stalked him outside his Los Angeles home, an incident captured on video. Even journalists trying to cover his relief work in Haiti are kept at arm’s length.

The irony is that Penn’s journalistic practices—his focus on the big get, his softball questions, his overheated prose, pre-publication approval—bear the hallmarks of the celebrity journalism he claims to disdain. 

This paradox (to use Penn’s word) is evident in his most recent reporting foray into Mexico to interview Joaquín Guzmán Loera, the leader of the Sinaloa cartel better known by his nickname, El Chapo, or Shorty.

According to Penn’s account of his meeting with El Chapo, published in Rolling Stone, the interview came about through the intervention of Mexican actress Kate del Castillo. After playing a drug capo on a Mexican soap opera, del Castillo posted a message on Twitter urging El Chapo to “traffic in love” instead of drugs. Guzmán responded through intermediaries, sending flowers to del Castillo. They began to correspond regularly. Guzmán wanted to interest del Castillo in producing a movie based on his life. Penn arranged to accompany del Castillo to a meeting with Guzmán to discuss a potential movie project. Before the trip, Penn secured an assignment to interview Guzmán for Rolling Stone, seeing the glamorous actress as the gateway to exclusive access to the fugitive drug lord.

Penn’s story, at an astonishing 11,000 words, is a mix of political rationalization, travelogue, atmospherics, and a short video interview with Guzmán conducted when a deal for a face-to-face interview collapsed. What did we learn? We learn that El Chapo is a drug trafficker, and not just a simple farmer as he had previously claimed. We learn that the tunnel makers who helped Guzmán escape from a high security prison received training in Germany. We learn that some of the lawyers who visited Guzmán in prison were actually his lieutenants.

These new elements are interesting, if not exactly earth-shattering. But by his own admission, Penn did not show up at the interview with Guzmáprepared to ask the tough questions. He didn’t even have a pen. He speaks no Spanish. He spent seven hours with Guzmán, but gave us very little idea what they spoke about. In the short follow up interview, conducted by video, Guzmán is clearly in control, giving largely desultory answers to softball questions.

“This is the version of the story authorized by El Chapo,” said Lydia Cacho, one of Mexico’s leading investigative journalists, who has probed official corruption and complicity with the criminal underworld in books and articles.  “No self respecting journalist would negotiate an interview like this, certainly not those who have risked our lives in Mexico,” she told me.

With more than 50 journalists killed and disappeared in the last eight years, Mexico is one of the most dangerous countries in the world for the press. Through violence and intimidation, the drug cartels control much of what is reported and not reported in large swaths of the country. Those who defy the cartels’ system of information management do so at grave risk.

“I’ve had many opportunities to interview the big bosses, their people have sought me out,” continued Cacho. “I’ve declined, not because I doubt such interviews are journalistically pertinent, but because they have killed many colleagues, because they have thrown bombs in newspapers in which I publish. I know first hand the suffering that their cruelty has caused in my country and an interview of this nature implies a tactical agreement with mafiosos that my ethics prevent me from accepting.”

While fiercely defending Penn’s right to meet with El Chapo and to express his ideas, other leading reporters in Mexico with whom I consulted shared Cacho’s view. “I don’t consider Sean Penn to be a journalist, I consider him an excellent actor,” said Adela Navarro, the courageous editor of Zeta, a weekly newspaper in Tijuana that has seen a number of its reporters gunned down by traffickers. “Without the context of the streets, without being a journalist in our country, Penn limits himself to asking El Chapo personal questions, which are not newsworthy or interesting to most Mexicans. We want to know who did he pay to escape, who in the government and the big corporations are helping him launder money. How many has he ordered to be killed. Questions like these.”

“If Sean Penn was a journalist, the first question he would have asked El Chapo is, ‘How many Mexican journalists have been killed on your orders?’” added Alejandro Páez Varela, the editor of investigative website Sin Embargo.

I come at the issue from a different perspective. While I wish that Penn had identified more with Mexican reporters who have suffered so tremendously while covering drug trafficking and the web of official corruption that protects it, I have no doubt that he was in Mexico as a journalist. After all, he was on assignment for Rolling Stone and he was there to get information that he intended to disseminate to the public. By exposing examples of casual complicity—the soldiers who wave El Chap’s men through roadblocks—Penn’s story helped counter the official narrative in Mexico.

But in the end, what Penn produced was not an interview and certainly not a piece of investigative journalism. It fits more neatly into another journalistic genre: The celebrity profile. Penn’s story is an exercise in myth making that for the most part lets El Chapo tell his own story.

Ironically,  it was the mutually reinforcing hubris between Penn and his subject that appears to have led the Mexican authorities to El Chapo’s door. Surveillance photographs published in the the Mexico City daily El Universal show that Mexican intelligence was tracking Penn and del Castillo the moment they landed in Mexico from Los Angeles.

Aside from apparently blowing El Chapo’s cover, Penn also committed another journalistic sin, which was to conflate the risk he took in reporting the story with the value of the information obtained. Sure, it takes plenty of guts to travel to Mexico and land an interview with El Chapo. It also takes some courage to stick a camera in Sean Penn’s face. While neither will necessarily produce great insights, celebrity journalism is part of the free speech package. If the Mexican authorities try to come after Penn—as they have threatened to do—I’ll be first to defend him.

Joel Simon is a CJR columnist and the executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists. His second book, The New Censorship: Inside the Global Battle for Media Freedom, was published by Columbia University Press in November 2014.