Forget Ricky Gervais, the funniest thing I saw this weekend was Sean Penn acting like a journalist

January 11, 2016
el chapo

It’s bad. Really bad. Written with made-up words, rambling for pages, and using language that could win The Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest for wretched writing.

I suffered through Sean Penn’s Rolling Stone secret interview with Mexican drug lord El Chapo to understand how the magazine could allow a celebrity to take on the complicated issue of drug trafficking, murder, corruption, and the cartels that have destroyed the Mexican government and threatened its people. I never really got an answer.

What I did learn is why no self-respecting publication should ever agree to allow the subject of an article to review its content before publication, and why no subject should ever even ask. The upfront disclaimer on the article lets readers know that Rolling Stone allowed Penn to share his work with the drug lord prior to publication to assure approval. Penn brags his murderous subject made no changes.

I wouldn’t expect any. Because the risk of allowing subjects veto power over journalism isn’t just that the truth can be edited and changed. The real risk is that the author will write the piece to appease the subject in order to assure its publication. In Penn’s piece, between the self-aggrandizement mentions of his staying at New York’s St. Regis Hotel or growing up surfing in Malibu—amid the incorrect word choices and the flowery, 11th grade high school English paper prose—you read a love letter to a thug. An apologist’s take that transforms a violent, global drug peddler into a folk hero, through revisionist theories such as:

“Unlike many of his counterparts who engage in gratuitous kidnapping and murder, El Chapo is a businessman first, and only resorts to violence when he deems it advantageous to himself or his business interests.”

Hey Sean: Why is murder any less horrible when it’s done out of a business interest?  Anyway, violence for violence’s sake is business in Mexico and used by the cartels to terrify others into submission and maintain control.

Even so, Penn’s contention that El Chapo’s violence is somehow nobler than that of other drug lords is a prime example of how untrained journalists can easily fall prey to their subject’s approval.

As for me, I prefer the hard, fast and dangerous rules of real journalists, where the truth doesn’t depend on the interviewee’s approval. In Mexico, the price for truth in journalism is often death. By Penn parading as a journalist, but not taking so much as a pen or paper let alone an audio recorder with him to record facts, he dismisses and diminishes the real price paid by Mexican journalists when they try to unmask evil, without Satan’s pre-approvals.

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