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?
DW: Interest. Passion. And he does a lot of research and talks to a lot of people. He doesn’t pass himself off as a Middle East expert by any means. He does get access because he’s Sean Penn; he is aware of that. The guy really does his homework on this stuff. In fact, I talked to him yesterday and he was monitoring how this thing was going over in Iran and he said, “You know it’s really interesting they have not blocked it. The Iranians have not blocked the access to this story, this Web site.”
LCB: How does he know that?
DW: I don’t know how he knew that. He’s also, over the years, gotten to know a whole bunch of journalists and officials in various countries, so I think he has a fairly complete network. But we were interested in that because [Iran] is not a country that welcomes the free flow of information.
LCB: What is the purpose of running a five-part series by Sean Penn? Is this a little bit of the Tina Brown-ification of the Chronicle, [editors printing] celebrity pseudo-journalists as a publicity stunt?
DW: (Laughter) Tina has better hair, right? I don’t know. The purpose is, he’s Sean Penn, he does have access, he lives in the Bay Area and has lived here for many years. I’m not going to pretend, I’m not going to stupidly say that Joe Shmoe could have gone to Iran and done the same thing and would have gotten that kind of attention from it. Readers know who he is and they know him to be a thoughtful person. He did prove himself fairly well in the Iraq series. So we were interested to see what he’d do in Iran as well.
From my point of view — and I have to say at this point, with two very intense editing projects with him, I talk to him on a first-name basis, not like we’re friends or anything, but I’m not star struck — what did fascinate me about this story in particular, even more than the Iraq one, was I didn’t know very much about the Iranian culture these days. It’s a very closed country. Because we’re not at war with them we don’t really know what it’s like, and the country has been almost closed to Western observers since the Ayatollah’s time in many ways. So when [Penn] writes, particularly in [yesterday’s] section, about the very rare demonstration for women’s rights, the very idea that they’d have such a thing was interesting to me. The dichotomy between a very conservative, religion-bound government, and women and younger students [Penn] talked to who really want more liberal values as a country, it was just interesting to me, stuff I just didn’t know about.
LCB: What was Penn’s mission? Did you give him a particular mandate?