Like every foreign journalist living in Mexico, I’ve been watching the Sean-Penn-interviews-notorious-drug-lord with a mix of humor and mild disgust. It’s like some kind of adolescent game of Mad Libs. El Chapo meets Sean Penn in the mountains to talk about farts and penises.
I tried to read the article but could only force myself through about half of the horrible, self-indulgent writing. I’m a science writer – unlike my war correspondent colleagues, I don’t have to read every narco story that comes out. And so I forgot about it.
But when he appeared on 60 Minutes the other day and hinted that the real reason journalists reacted so negatively to his “article” was that they were jealous, I finally snapped. The American journalists who work in Mexico covering the drug war are some of the most dedicated, thoughtful and selfless writers I have ever met. Their passion and courage is surpassed only by their Mexican counterparts who also cover the drug war.
Mr. Penn lives under the delusion that the reason so many actual journalists hated his Rolling Stone screed was we are somehow jealous of the scoop he landed. And I’m sure in his head that makes sense. So let me just clear that up right now before it goes any further.
I am a journalist working in Mexico and I can guarantee you I’m not jealous that I didn’t get to interview Mexico’s most notorious criminal while hiding out in the mountains of Sinaloa. I wouldn’t want that interview. Put another way, there’s no way in hell, heaven, purgatory or anything in between that I would take that interview, even if it was offered.
It’s not that I’m scared – sitting next to Chapo Guzman is probably the safest place in the whole country. It’s that I’m not qualified and I know it. I’m a science writer – I write about fish and jungles and ancient temples. I wouldn’t want to interview the country’s most well-known druglord because I don’t have the perspective to do it right. Journalism requires a combination of experience and research being brought to bear on issues that affect society.
And when you go into an interview unprepared, especially with someone bringing their own agenda, you run the risk of getting “snowed.” Completely covered up under spin and misdirection and allowing the subject to control the interview because you don’t know the ways they can confuse the conversation. I’d get chewed up and spit out. Totally humiliated.
Which is exactly what happened to Mr. Penn. In fact, from interview to execution, his “article” was a lesson in how not to do journalism that should be taught in every j-school in the country. Reading his tome of self-indulgence, all I could feel for him was pity because he did such a bad job. And sadness at the loss of an opportunity.
Penn said that his goal was to paint a different picture of the failed drug war along our border with Mexico. Yet, in a shocking 10,000 words, he barely even mentioned it. No wider perspective, no insightful research, no thoughtful critique. Instead we got a fanboy travelogue glorifying a convicted killer that read like it was written by a freshmen English literature student.
But the real reason I’m pissed at Sean Penn isn’t because he’s a dilettante (though he is). It isn’t because when he prances around in his journalist costume he insults our entire profession (though it does). It isn’t because his idea of journalism ethics is working for free (though if he were a real journalist I can’t imagine anyone paying him). And it isn’t because in the end, he produced a self-serving pile of crap (excellently lampooned here).
No, I think the real reason so many of my colleagues and I despise what he did is that we’re afraid that no one can tell the difference. Down deep, we are petrified that the people outside our profession – our cherished readers – can’t tell the difference between an actor playing a bad version of Hunter S Thompson and a real journalist. That the American public truly believes that anyone with pen and an ego can be a journalist.
So in the end, maybe he is right. It’s not really him that we are upset with but ourselves. We are scared that this is the last nail in the coffin of real journalism. That in the future, the only way that real issues will be brought to the public eye is for a movie star to stumble around and make a mess of it. But most of all, we’re scared that public won’t notice when it disappears.
The only funny spot in all of this is that Sean Penn himself seemed to have no idea what a terrible job he did, what an insult his actions were to hard-working writers and photographers who put their lives on the line to try and carve off a sliver of truth to deliver to their readers in a straightforward way. Or to the Mexican people, who deserve to have their own writers interview their criminals, not to read some gringo neophyte glorify a man who has killed thousands of their countrymen.
While reporting my science beat I occasionally meet people who have lost loved ones to monsters like El Chapo. My American colleagues covering the drug war know – and have worked with – many more. And my Mexican colleagues run the risk of becoming one of those people every day. The least Sean Penn could have done was to step aside and let a real journalist do his or her job.
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Correction: The original post referred to comments on Charlie Rose, not 60 Minutes.