In his instantly controversial Rolling Stone article about Mexican drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzmán, actor Sean Penn cites “weeks of clandestine planning” that went into securing an interview with one of the world’s most wanted men, including Penn’s use of encrypted email messages, code names and disposable “burner” phones.
What Rolling Stone and Penn did not detail, however, were the background negotiations that led to the interview and publication of Penn’s 10,000-word piece Saturday. The story offered only this eye-opening paragraph: “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.”
The deal raised alarms among media watchers: Journalists occasionally give sources pre-publication approval over their quotes, but even that practice is considered controversial. The idea that an entire article would be submitted “for the subject’s approval” prior to publication is almost unheard of and raises the potential for unorthodox compromises.
“Allowing any source control over a story’s content is inexcusable,” Andrew Seaman, chairman of the ethics committee of the Society of Professional Journalists, wrote on the organization’s blog late Saturday night, shortly after Rolling Stone posted its story. “The practice of pre-approval discredits the entire story — whether the subject requests changes or not.”
The reason: Such an agreement creates a built-in incentive to avoid unfavorable or unflattering facts in hopes of winning a source’s approval.
“I can’t think of a news organization that would have agreed to those circumstances,” said Barbara Cochran, a journalism professor at the University of Missouri and a former Washington bureau chief for CBS News. “News organizations don’t even like to submit questions in advance, let alone whole articles.”
Rolling Stone’s compromise in this case is all the more striking because its journalistic reputation has remained under a cloud since its publication in November 2014 of a now-discredited article about an alleged gang rape at a fraternity at the University of Virginia. The magazine is facing three defamation lawsuits for the story..
A spokeswoman for Rolling Stone said Sunday that the magazine would respond to questions about the Penn article, but then did not reply to subsequent inquiries.
Rolling Stone has adistinguished history of in-depth reporting on politics and national and international affairs, but its best and best-known work has almost always been conducted by its journalists. Penn, an actor and activist, is not a journalist, although he has interviewed such figures as Cuban president Raul Castro and the late Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez and has occasionally written for such publication as the Nation and the San Francisco Chronicle.
Penn’s apparent admiration, or at least empathy, for Guzmán may have played as much of a role in securing his cooperation as his promise to allow Guzmán to review his story.
Despite occasionally acknowledging the chaos El Chapo’s drug syndicate and others have sown in Mexico and in the United States, Penn portrays Guzmán as a poor peasant driven by economic desperation into the drug trade. He describes him as “a second president of Mexico” with “an indisputable charisma” who flashes “a warm smile” throughout their seven-hour meeting in an undisclosed location. Penn’s sense of menace and threat is leavened by his descriptions of Guzmán’s embrace of his family, particularly his two sons.
This is similar to Penn’s description of Castro during a seven-hour chat with the Cuban president in Havana in 2008. In that piece, published by the liberal Nation magazine, Penn wrote that Castro was “warm, open, energetic and sharp of wit.”
Penn also suggests repeatedly that Americans are hypocritical in their efforts to fight the drug cartels, writing, “Are we, the American public, not indeed complicit in what we demonize? We are the consumers, and as such, we are complicit in every murder, and in every corruption of an institution’s ability to protect the quality of life for citizens of Mexico and the United States that comes as a result of our insatiable appetite for illicit narcotics.”
In Penn’s account, Guzmán seems to have been intrigued by Penn’s activism and by the prospect of a movie about his life (“he was interested in seeing the story of his life told on film”). The meeting was brokered by Kate del Castillo, a Mexican actress who apparently had gained El Chapo’s trust through a series of sympathetic tweets in 2012. Del Castillo made inquiries about an interview through Guzmán’s attorneys.
This is also potentially compromising, Cochran said. If Guzmán, Penn and Rolling Stone were acting on an implied or explicit promise of a movie deal, it would represent a quid pro quo that compromises the independence of Penn’s reporting, she said.
When del Castillo received a favorable reply about an interview from Guzmán’s associates, Penn wrote that he called Rolling Stone publisher and co-founder Jann Wenner, who gave the assignment to Penn, and — inexplicably — two Guzmán associates, identified in the article as Espinoza and El Alto. He said that Wenner gave him a letter “officiating” the project, but he doesn’t explain what this meant.
Penn’s article contains at least one newsworthy nugget — a boast/confession from Guzmán about his role in the drug trade, which he has previously denied. “El Chapo sticks to an illicit game,” Penn writes, “proudly volunteering, ‘I supply more heroin, methamphetamine, cocaine and marijuana than anybody else in the world. I have a fleet of submarines, airplanes, trucks and boats.’”
The story drew its share of derision online, and not just from media ethicists. Andy Borowitz, the New Yorker’s satirist, quickly posted a parody news article Sunday afternoon headlined, “ISIS Chief Abruptly Cancels Meeting with Sean Penn.”
At one point, the news site Deadline Hollywood picked up the story, presenting it as straight news. It later removed the story, posting instead an apology to Penn.