Those who spent copious amounts of time reading through Sean Penn’s 10,000-word-plus Rolling Stone piece that contains an interview with Mexican then-fugitive drug lord “El Chapo” (Joaquín Archivaldo Guzmán Loera) needn’t have. Of those words, there are about 1,500 that are worth reading.
If that. The actual interview that Penn secured with El Chapo did yield one marquee comment: “I supply more heroin, methamphetamine, cocaine and marijuana than anybody else in the world. I have a fleet of submarines, airplanes, trucks and boats.” That’s a compelling comment to secure on the record. Good thing, because such moments are infrequent in this bloated tract. Take this response to a question from Penn:
What is the difference in people now compared to back then?
Big difference, because now, day after day, villages are getting bigger, and there’s more of us, and lots of different ways of thinking.
There are many such moments in this venture, which is newsworthy for a few reasons: 1) Timing — El Chapo, who has run a massive, international drug empire, was re-captured by Mexican authorities last week after a prison escape last summer; 2) Celebrity — Sean Penn is Sean Penn; and 3) Journalism ethics — Rolling Stone and Penn have come under fire for agreeing to a pre-approval arrangement with El Chapo. To the magazine’s credit, it’s right there at the top of the story:
Disclosure: Some names have had to be changed, locations not named, and an understanding was brokered with the subject that this piece would be submitted for the subject’s approval before publication. The subject did not ask for any changes.
Perhaps the subject fell asleep before he could suggest any. Surely the approval agreement places the Penn piece outside the boundaries of journalism and closer to a jungle-hopping adventure in PR. It should come as no surprise, given the “disclosure,” that subsequent paragraphs deal with the work of El Chapo in the most enthralled terms. Charismatic guy? Check. Smiles a lot? Check. Powerful? Oh, so, so powerful! In an interview with the New York Times, Rolling Stone Managing Editor Jason Fine said that if El Chapo had wanted any changes, then the magazine could have killed the story.
Yeah, right. Rolling Stone, via Penn, secured a meeting with El Chapo, a coup that is believed to have marked his only interview in decades. In so doing, Penn surely drained a great deal of Rolling Stone resources, including travel, arrangements to keep the planning secret and the time of top officials at the magazine. It was never going to not publish this piece.
And so it submitted something to El Chapo to which he couldn’t possibly object. The kingpin’s hands-off response allowed Rolling Stone to come away looking as if he didn’t take seriously the agreement. Rolling Stone’s Jann Wenner told the Times that El Chapo didn’t have much interest in taking a red pen to Penn’s words. Clearly, Rolling Stone didn’t either. “I don’t think it was a meaningful thing in the first place,” Wenner told the Times of the arrangement with El Chapo. “We have let people in the past approve their quotes in interviews….”
For all the finger-wagging, the journalistic malpractice here is nothing compared to big screw-ups of the past year or so, like when Rolling Stone magazine all but ginned up a story about a gang rape at the University of Virginia. That ended in a retraction and dashed reputations.
All journalistic misadventures tell us something about the perps. In this case, it’s that Rolling Stone’s editors lack the courage to tell a Hollywood A-Lister that his prose is self-indulgent and nonsensical. How else to explain why Rolling Stone allowed Penn to riff in the most impenetrable of ways about how El Chapo planned to send flowers to actress Kate Del Castillo, a key player in arranging Penn’s interview? “She nervously offered her address, but with the gypsy movements of an actress, the flowers did not find her,” writes Penn. Veto power in hand, how did El Chapo let that one get past him?
In deference to El Chapo, he was handed one heck of an editing chore: