David Wiegand, executive datebook editor at the San Francisco Chronicle, edited — with input from publisher Phil Bronstein — actor Sean Penn’s five reports from Iran which ran serially this week in the Chronicle. Wiegand, who also edited Penn’s earlier coverage from Iraq, has been with the Chronicle since 1992, working as a copy editor, a slot editor and an assigning editor prior to his current position. Before joining the Chronicle he was the editor of the Cambridge Chronicle in Massachusetts for eight years.
Liz Cox Barrett: How would you describe the editing process for Penn’s pieces?
David Wiegand: Um, long. Because it was a very big piece. I mean the original document — before we even determined how many days it would run, which sidebars would go where and so forth — was 13,000 words. So it was a very big piece, and during much of the time that I was actually editing it Sean wasn’t even in this country. He was in London because Robin, his wife, was filming over there. And then he was in Africa at some point, and he was in Paris, I think, at one point. So a lot of it was done by email and over different time changes and time zones. So it was a challenge.
LCB: What are Penn’s strengths and weaknesses — can he write and report?
DW: He has a very good eye as a reporter. He sees all kinds of details, and I hadn’t really thought about this very much in this way before, but I do think that his background and his “day job” help him to really see nuance and detail and character in a really nice way. That, I think, was the strength. If there was a weakness, it was that he absorbed so much and wanted to put it all on the page. And I would have to say, “We have to make some choices here. Let’s go for this quote but not that one,” and, “This scene, I think, interrupts the flow a little bit,” and that sort of thing.
LCB: Why are the pieces just running this week when Penn was in Iran back in June, just before the elections? What took so long?
DW: [Penn] came in and met with Phil [Bronstein] in, I would say, the end of June. He had written a couple of pages, a scene that ended up being at the very end of the piece. It had to do with the fact that when he got back to the Bay Area he was sitting in his living room and CNN was reporting that at that moment Sean Penn was in Tehran. And he found it greatly ironic, the inaccuracy of this particular report. So he wrote us that scene and then he went back and wrote more from there. He had done some writing in London, but he hadn’t completed it yet. Then it arrived here and, as I said, it was a document of 13,000 words. And I started editing it, and I proposed one way of editing it, and he came back with, “What about this and that?” I mean it was just a lot of back and forth, primarily — or in part — caused by logistics.
LCB: Did the CNN scene make the final cut?
DW: Yes, it’s in there [today]. It’s basically Soledad [O’Brien] reporting that Sean Penn is in Tehran today. One of the things [Penn] feels is the irony, I guess, of the fact that information is so readily and immediately available in today’s world and yet so wrong sometimes.
LCB: I did notice several bits of media criticism sprinkled through his pieces. At one point he wrote, “Journalists spend so much of their time in pursuit of regurgitated information. Let’s talk to this one for that side, that one for this side.” At another point he described running into a “well-known … left-leaning Western journalist” at a demonstration, who told Penn he should try to get arrested because it “would make a great story,” after which Penn remarked, “So that’s the way they play it, huh?” Seems he has some strong feelings about the quality of journalism these days?
DW: He has very strong feelings about it, yes. And some of it does have to do with the fact that he gets besieged by paparazzi and he’s Sean Penn, but really a lot of it doesn’t because he went many places in Iran where he wasn’t necessarily recognized. He was looking at how things are reported. And when he was in Iraq he had similar experiences as well.
LCB: Hmm, maybe CJR should hire him, too.
DW: Yes, really. Media Watch with Sean Penn or something.
LCB: What qualifies Penn to do pieces like these?