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Sean Penn and the danger of playing journalist

Recently, it came to light that Sean Penn conducted an in-person interview with one of the world's most wanted criminals—Mexican drug lord "El Chapo," leader of the Sinaloa Cartel—as part of his article published in Rolling Stone magazine. Readers instinctively began drawing comparisons to "Hanoi" Jane Fonda. The New Yorker published a piece of satire suggesting that the chief of ISIS had cancelled a would-be meeting with Penn following El Chapo's arrest.

Penn has historically been known to meet with unsavory people in power, including Venezuela's late dictator, Hugo Chavez; Saddam Hussein's deputy prime minister, Tariq Aziz; and Cuba's former leader, Fidel Castro. The lattermost hadn't permitted an interview with a Western journalist in years, but Penn was granted an audience.

The general reception of Penn's article has been less than glowing, but the journalism community has been especially disapproving. They have multiple valid reasons for concern.

1. He showed little objectivity in his representation of the drug lord.

When you use phrases like "Robin Hood-like figure" or "he has an indisputable charisma" to describe a man who has built an empire on the corpses of not only those in competing cartels, but journalists and Mexican citizens, you may need to question your objectivity. Never in the article did he explicitly assign responsibility for violence to the drug lord, instead blaming the War on Drugs, American drug users, and Mexico's socioeconomic climate. Penn excuses El Chapo's life choices by portraying his boyhood spent in poverty and emphasizing the inevitability of his career in crime.

Penn even goes so far as to flatteringly compare Chapo to Al Pacino's character in the film 'Scarface'. "His unguarded will to speak freely, his comfort with his station in life and ownership of extraordinary justifications, conjure Tony Montana in Oliver Stone's 'Scarface'." This seems to reflect an open admiration for the drug lord's unapologetically ruthless nature, juxtaposing this real-life gangster with the protagonist in a Hollywood production.

In what struck me as a superficial attempt to excuse his flattery, Penn indicates that he tried to view El Chapo as soulless, tried to remind himself of the man's evil deeds, but apparently failed. "Soullessness...wasn't it that that my moral conditioning was obliged to recognize in him? Wasn't it soullessness that I must perceive in him for myself to be perceived here as other than a Pollyanna? An apologist? I tried hard, folks. I really did." That says more about Sean Penn than it does about El Chapo.

2. Penn agreed to have the article approved by El Chapo before publishing.

This flies directly in the face of journalistic integrity. If you have to self-censor everything you write in order to appease the interviewee, you'll never be able to provide a worthwhile service to the reader, nor will you ask or answer the difficult questions that make your article worth reading.

What I found most comical about this is Rolling Stone's defense, saying the piece came back without any edits. They clearly meant to suggest that El Chapo didn't actually influence the article even though he was given the chance. Instead, I think Penn wrote this knowing it would have to pass Chapo's approval, so he filled the article with fluff and aggrandizement, and it passed with flying colors.

3. Stories like this negatively impact the field of journalism.

When celebrities take advantage of their reputation in order to gain access to people of interest who are unavailable to the media, and the approach taken in the subsequent interview is that of a casual lunch with a new friend, a game of slow-pitch softball, it makes it far more difficult for non-celebrity journalists to gain access or conduct a probing interview. The people best suited to conduct impartial and insightful interviews, the ones with experience and background as journalists, are substituted for a day spent with a celebrity and a sycophantic feature piece that reads like an excerpt from a biography.

Does that mean I don't think Penn should be allowed to work as a journalist? Of course not. There's no monopoly on journalism, no exclusive badge or membership, particularly in this era of instant reporting by ordinary people with smartphones. That said, I don't think Penn is a good journalist, nor do I think he's doing any service to the integrity or perception of journalism by writing fluff pieces like this and passing them off as hard journalism. I think his piece in Rolling Stone was well written, but it read like a celebrity profile, an exclusive day at the spa with a reclusive film star or politician.

Ultimately, I think Penn is playing out a fantasy. When money is no longer relevant, when you've exhausted the accolades available to a Hollywood star, what's next? The man's clearly bored, and has decided to leverage his money and influence to play journalist. Yes, he netted a major scoop, but what has he done with it besides glorify a convicted murderer?

(Featured image courtesy of


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