Journalism (According to Sean Penn)

A few years ago I watched a couple of movies – Mystic River, The Weight of Water – and I became a Sean Penn fan. On Sunday evening, I watched 60 Minutes and wondered, who is this person?

You probably know the story by now; Sean Penn, with the help of Mexican actress Kate del Castillo (I loved her in the telenovela La reina del sur), managed to find, meet and “interview” El Chapo – the world’s biggest and most violent drug dealer. So what’s the problem? Let’s break it down.

First, I want to make clear that I have no problem with Penn or any other person (actor, journalist, whatever) capitalizing on the opportunity to meet and talk to a man as famous and as important as El Chapo. If I had that opportunity I would have done so too. What bothers me is Penn’s assertion that he’s a journalist too – like the rest of us (albeit yours truly is a former journalist at this point) who strive to follow a code of ethics to minimize harm, to act independently, to hold the powerful accountable, to give voice to the voiceless.

“I’m really sad about the state of journalism in our country,” Penn told Rose.

El Chapo is (or was) powerful, right? Yet Penn missed the opportunity to hold him accountable. Thirty long and rambling paragraphs into his Rolling Stone article and finally we meet the notorious drug lord. Penn spent seven hours with El Chapo and still, no question about the effects of his business on society – and I’m not just referring to the effect of the drugs themselves but the drug industry, the cartels, the murders and beheadings and hanging people’s bodies of highway bridges to scare entire towns (aren’t those towns and the families of the dead, the voiceless?). And even when Penn sent in questions for El Chapo to answer on video, he asked about his childhood, how his business evolved and what he dreams about. So what was the point of his meeting and “interview?”

Charlie Rose on 60 Minutes asked him that straight up and Penn rambled on about the policy on the war on drugs. Many already know it’s a failed policy – it’s why Michael Botticelli, the new Director of National Drug Control Policy, doesn’t want to be known as a drug czar, telling Scott Pelley in another 60 Minutes segment that the way we have waged this war for 40 years “has been all wrong.”

Penn’s intentions are still unclear – they can be summed up as saying that he wanted to get people talking about the war on drugs. That’s not what happened and we know now his article failed. He also admits that but says it failed because people misunderstood what he did.

Here’s what I understood or misunderstood:

I understood that Sean Penn saw an opportunity and took it. I didn’t understand half of what he told Charlie Rose. As I was watching the 60 Minutes interview, I blamed his rambling on being nervous and emotional as if he truly cared about the subject matter. But then my husband reminded me that he’s an actor.

I understood that Sean Penn claims to take no payment when he does journalism. Well good for him – but true journalists do get paid, because it’s their job, not a hobby. What they don’t do is allow an interview subject – criminal or saint – to have a say on the finished product, to decide whether it gets printed or aired. That’s part of that “act independently” code of ethics I already mentioned. It’s why a Univision reporter explained that when he had the chance to interview El Chapo he refused because it wouldn’t accept the drug lord’s requirement of approving the story.

I understood that Penn considers himself an experiential journalist. Experiential is defined as “involving or based on experience and observation.” Based on that, all journalists are experiential.  They report on what they experience and observe but true journalists take it further, they go deeper. They question what they’re witnessing, they try to sort out what happened and how it affects people, they focus on others – not themselves. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy some experiential – gonzo – journalism. I’ve always had a good time reading Hunter S. Thompson but when Charlie Rose evoked him in his conversation with Penn, Penn disagreed that he’s following in his tradition.

What [journalists] don’t do is allow an interview subject – criminal or saint – to have a say on the finished product…

For me it all came down to this. While Sean Penn has the right to meet and talk to whomever he wants and Rolling Stone can publish whatever it wants, I found it laughable that Penn sat face-to-face with one of the most successful and thoughtful interviewers and journalists and talked about the state of journalism.

“I’m really sad about the state of journalism in our country,” Penn told Rose, adding that those journalists who claim he’s not a journalist should show him their journalism license. Journalists all over the world didn’t take kindly to those words and mocked Penn on Twitter. Some wanted to remind Penn of what happens to journalists who cover drug cartels like El Chapo’s – “Censor or Die” is the Washington Post headline on the article that talks about that fate. As Erik Wemple wrote on this blog for the Post “Journalists aren’t licensed, thank god. They secure that distinction through their work – work that takes a deep, detailed, thorough and uncorrupted look at a subject.” And that’s the truth for the journalists I know, who work hard every day to cover their communities fairly, thoughtfully and thoroughly, and who should remember that Sean Penn is – as my husband reminded me – an actor.


Sean Penn Photo/Seher Sikandar

Christina Karaoli Taylor

Christina Karaoli Taylor

Christina Karaoli Taylor will forgive you if you can't pronounce her middle – maiden – name. It’s one of the things she deals with as an immigrant to the U.S. From Cyprus, she’s been in the U.S. for more than two decades, but she’s been a U.S. citizen for just five years. She’s an Emmy award winning news producer. She loves her Emmy so much that she’s put it on the top shelf of the bookcase in the cats’ litter box room – she occasionally dusts and buffs it. Combine her immigrant experiences and her newsroom work and she has a lot to talk about; from how she learned to navigate the Taco Bell menu as a new immigrant more than 20 years ago to how she can teach media outlets to stop perpetuating stereotypes. She has an opinion on just about everything – just ask her, she’ll tell you. She’s a crazy Wichita State basketball fan, she’s not a mom – ask her why, she’ll explain all 10,000 reasons even if she thinks it’s none of your business – she loves her herd of spoiled cats, hopes to learn seven languages - three down, four to go - further confusing her poor husband, and at heart she’s a lazy person who can spend an entire weekend on the couch watching TV, without any guilt.