David Wiegand on Editing Sean Penn, The Actor’s “Masculine” Writing Style, and the Tina Brown-ification of the San Francisco Chronicle

David Wiegand

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?

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?

DW: It’s very matter-of-fact. He’s not an eloquent, flowery writer. Is he Hemingway-esque? Well, I wouldn’t put it that way, exactly, because Hemmingway wrote very short, short sentences and Sean does not. Sean wrote in very complicated sentences sometimes. But his style is definitely a masculine style, I suppose. I think he has a very strong sense of irony in his writing. He’s aware of ironies. He’s very detailed. A lot of editing we did was just that he put everything into these original pieces and we’d say, “Let’s just take this word out, this sentence out.”

LCB: Any plans to dispatch other celebrity “reporters” around the globe? Maybe, say, Larry David to North Korea?

DW: (Laughter) There’s a thought. No, I mean we don’t have any specific plans right now that I know of. It’s not like we’re trolling for people in Hollywood to go write things for us. Sean knows Phil Bronstein and has lived in the Bay Area for years. I was saying to Phil yesterday, kidding him, saying, “OK, let’s go work on Robin [Williams] again. Let’s see if Robin will write for us. Where can we send him?”

LCB: Where will Penn go next for you? Any plans?

DW: Not that I know of, but if he’s interested in stuff, I’d be interested in listening to him. The guy has a voracious appetite for this kind of thing, not for the writing — he certainly doesn’t need the attention — but he really pays attention to world affairs much more than people might imagine.

Correction: The above has been corrected to reflect a reference to Robin Williams, instead of Robin Wright Penn.

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Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR.