No, Mr. Penn, That Is Not Why We Hate You


shutterstock_309953711Like 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.


Photo Credit: Shutterstock

Correction: The original post referred to comments on Charlie Rose, not 60 Minutes.


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22 thoughts on “No, Mr. Penn, That Is Not Why We Hate You

  1. I started reading and said “great hook”. I kept going and said “great article”. There’s a step beyond good commentary about an event that involves finding and expression the broader reality that that event illustrates, and you’ve done the work here.

  2. I totally enjoy reading your blog ! I also agree with you regarding Sean Penn.
    Looks like all that came from that interview was really bad writing and now he, Mr Penn, surely has to be wondering if el Chapo is concerned Mr. Penn got him caught…big oops.
    Hard to say governments lie , it seems to be prerequisite these days for them.

  3. At least he does something. At least he doesn’t sit in Los Angeles interviewing bureaucrats. At least he takes chances. At least he’s not a corporate entity. Your critique is as easy as savaging Jar Jar Binks was, but the new Star Wars movie shows what happens when people give up on taking chances. You should cut him some slack. At least he’s trying.

  4. I think your point is really, better that nobody interview Guzman than that Sean Penn do it as he did, and I think you made it well. Your kicker, “The least Sean Penn could have done was to step aside and let a real journalist do his or her job” I think invites Sean Penn to respond “Well, no real journalist was interviewing this guy or going to interview him anytime soon, so who did you want me to step aside for?”

  5. Great piece! I watched the Charley Rose interview and was amazed at how clueless Penn seemed. I was actually embarrassed for him. On a different subject. Would love to see you add a proper credit to the photograph on your web site that only credits Shutterstock, the link below your story. I’m professional photographer and I”m as appalled as you with the general public for not knowing what quality is. Today it’s all to common to have the big sock agencies be credited for beautiful photography and the actual photographer gets no credit at all. I feel it’s important that all journalists be properly credited. Thanks in advance.

  6. Hm. Well, interesting point. But this is not some coveted interview of a reclusive artist and it certainly isn’t Star Wars. This is a complex, destructive and truly tragic policy conversation that affects the lives of millions of people. In that case, no, we do not want to get our information from someone just trying his best. The responsible thing to do would have been to call Ioan Grillo or Alfredo Corchado or Don Winslow or really anyone to come along. And then get them to co-author it with you. And if Guzman refuses, then you say, “Thank you for your time but no thanks.” That would take a jot of humility. The thing you don’t do is write a puff piece about a mass murderer.

  7. Daniel, I am so sorry. You are right and I feel your pain. I work with many excellent photographers here in Mexico and their work has appeared in this blog. But in this case, out of respect for them, I didn’t want to attach their name to my opinions. So I used a stock photo, which I hate doing. Here is an example where I chose differently – for a paying outlet.

  8. …Add to that Jann Wenner providing Penn with such a coveted platform and you’ve got the full monty so to speak.

  9. Penn’s article fails every test of true journalism, as you have documented here. But the real culprit isn’t the self-indulgent, self-delusional Sean Penn, it’s Jan Wenner, publisher of Rolling Stone, and his clearly feckless managing editor. Had the byline on that story been John Doe it never would have merited even the briefest of reads before being spiked. Even with Penn’s byline it deserved nothing better than the delete button. Many idiots submit articles to publications, but good editors spare readers from seeing them.

  10. I can understand the position of the author in this article. On the other hand, I haven’t had high regard for journalists or the media since the lead-up to the Iraq war. I’d recommend cleaning house first-go after the editors/pundits/journalists who failed to point out the obvious: the claims of the Bush administration were unsubstantiated. Stand up to authoritarians like Trump when they try to intimidate journalists from asking tough questions. Sure, Penn’s “article” was obnoxious, but the much bigger disservice to journalism over the past several decades is allowing the powerful (whether political or economic) to deter the media from discussing the facts.

  11. This reminds me of the common, and often maddening, practice of hiring former athletes to provide commentary for sporting events. Sometimes it works out well, other times is a horrific failure, but in either case tends to redefine, and cheapen, the profession of sports journalism.

  12. Excellent analysis, Erik. Indeed, the Rolling Stones editorial team shoulders a lot of the responsibility, as Tom Fiedler points out above. I can’t blame the magazine for accepting Penn’s pitch, but the editors needed to assign a reporter on the Mexican drug beat to work with Penn, or at least require Penn to ask the hard questions. Given the timing of the story’s posting after Guzman’s arrest, I wonder if the editors could have done more with his drafts if they had the time.

  13. Well said Erik. Sadly, I think the public has always been a little bit susceptible to clueless, pen-wielding egotists who believe journalism is easy and that they are good at it. In today’s “media for all” environment, that’s only gotten worse. The scariest thing about Penn’s story, to me, is what it says about the editors of Rolling Stone. Perhaps the only value left in the traditional media model may lie in the vetting process we all believe in. In this case, the gatekeepers were asleep at the door. (Or rather, they were star struck and greedy). Of course, if the editors themselves didn’t recognize Penn’s egregious scribblings for what they were, we have far more to be worried about.

  14. The interview kept trending for days and somehow projected the drug lord as Robinhood. The interview once again projects the nexus between crime world and Hollywood.

  15. Penn hizo lo que pudo y no lo hizo bien. Él mismo lo reconoce. El tipo es más actor y activista que otra cosa. Pero ya ´chole´con eso. El análisis, crítica y debate debería enfocarse más en lo que hacen y dejan de hacer los gobiernos de México y de los Estados Unidos para solucionar la problemática común del narcotráfico. Ahi es donde está el meollo del asunto. No en saber si Penn es un periodista, un patán o ambas cosas. Saludos.

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