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?
DW: No, there was no particular mandate. Phil [Bronstein] actually talked to [Penn] directly before he left. I didn’t speak to him until he got back. I do know that what he had from us was a letter of introduction from the Chronicle saying, “This is Sean Penn,” basically, which helped him get press credentials. But I don’t believe there was any particular mandate, get this or don’t get that. I think it was [just] go there, it should be a really interesting time in this country’s history because they’re having an election which turned out to be more interesting than people thought because of who got elected. He was going to gauge the mood of the country and tell us what he was seeing.
LCB: What do Penn’s reports add to existing reporting coming from Iran and Iraq? What specific insights or bits of news did Penn provide to readers that they might not have otherwise had?
DW: We’re very lucky to have a number of people on the Chronicle foreign service who do a really good job, and they really are Middle East experts. The fact that it’s Sean Penn, let’s face it, people are going to read it, and they’ll hopefully develop an interest and they’ll go back and read the things that our regular correspondents are providing on a regular basis from the Middle East.
LCB: Gawker concluded that Penn’s reports read “as if Ernest Hemingway made sweet, sweet love to Jeff Spicoli before our very eyes.” How would you describe Penn’s style?