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In defense of Sean Penn

The actor’s journalistic sins are the industry’s, not his alone

January 23, 2016 2:00AM ET

After Rolling Stone published Sean Penn’s interview with Mexican drug lord El Chapo, critics accused Penn of being little more than a “celebrity journalist” who violated core journalistic ethics. But is “celebrity journalism” really that different from mainstream journalism?

The phrase today has at least three different connotations: journalists who focuses on celebrities, journalists who become celebrities in their own right, and — as in this case, actors or other celebrities who engage in some forms of reporting and/or commentary.

Journalism and celebrity have been closely linked for decades. The communications and media revolution that accompanied the rise of the film industry in the late 19th and early 20th centuries coincided with the rise of mass advertising and produced a cultural landscape that valued celebrities over military heroes and statesmen. Hollywood stars, it turned out, could sell newspapers, magazines and advertising. So what could be better than a celebrity journalist.

The journalist-as-celebrity phenomenon began with newspaper reporters such as Walter Winchell, H.L. Mencken and Nellie Bly and continued in the 1950s through 1970s with print and television stars such as Walter Cronkite, Edward R. Murrow, and later, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. Their fame came from being precisely what their counterparts today are not: independent voices enabling, and sometimes forcing Americans to confront a corrupt political system. 

In the 1980s, television networks and newspapers were taken over by multinational corporations such as GE, Disney, Westinghouse, and media entrepreneurs such as Sumner Redstone and Rupert Murdoch. Journalists then became less practitioners of a “craft” that than creators and sustainers of a “brand” (as so brilliantly captured by Albert Brooks’ 1987 masterpiece “Broadcast News” and Sidney Lumet’s 1976 “Network”).  

This occurred as the profession lost resources for hard reporting, particularly of the kinds of foreign affairs issues that Sean Penn has engaged in his journalistic forays. As Melissa Chan pointed out in her Time magazine review of Penn’s journalism, these include interviewing Hugo Chavez and Raul Castro, and writing about his experiences covering the 2005 Iranian elections and doing disaster relief work after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti.

Meanwhile, media “personalities” such as Woodward, New York Times columnist Tom Friedman and former NBC News anchor Brian Williams traded their celebrity for insider access and anodyne reporting while comedians such as Bill Maher and Jon Stewart became revered arbiters of current events by routinely bringing celebrities together with politicians to debate the news. 

Today, the prevalence of social media and the increasing distrust of the public in professional journalism have all further blurred the lines between journalism as a profession and another profit-making branding exercise.

The scripted nature of Penn’s interview is not so different from the sit-downs that movie stars, politicians and CEOs give journalists today.

Sean Penn’s journalistic avocation fits perfectly into this confusing landscape. Critics accuse him of not being a “real” journalist; but his part-time and unpaid writing only brings him closer in line with today’s freelance-dominated profession. They say his writing leaves much to be desired; but one of the little-known secrets editors working in long-form journalism confront daily is that the more well-known the writer, the lousier the prose.

Indeed, if anyone is at fault for his inelegant prose, it’s his editor, who clearly did not put in much effort to improve the writing — something he easily could have done (and most editors do, even with the most celebrated of writers) without changing the content of the piece.

In another contention against Penn’s story, critics claimed it was as a puff piece that didn’t produce real news. On the contrary, it produced a whopper of an admission by El Chapo: that he is, in fact, the world’s biggest drug dealer, something he’d never publicly admitted. That, along with the descriptions Penn provides of how easily he moved through army checkpoints with Guzman’s son driving the car, is a startling confirmation of the level of corruption plaguing the Mexican war on drugs.

Further accusations that Penn was too soft on El Chapo, while certainly true, must be contextualized. Even one of Mexico’s most fearless journalists, Julio Scherer, did little better when he interviewed El Chapo’s right-hand man, Ismael “Mayo” Zambada, in 2010. It turns out that interviewing people who could easily kill you for asking the wrong question tends to put a damper on combative journalism. Should Penn have pressed harder, especially regarding the cartel killings of journalists, when he continued the conversation remotely? It depends on what the goal of the interview was and whether he and his editors judged that El Chapo would continue the interview if such a line were pursued. Whether the resulting story had journalistic value without such questions can and should be debated within the journalistic community and broader public sphere.

What’s more, the scripted nature of Penn’s interview is not so different from the sit-downs that movie stars, politicians and CEOs give journalists today. If El Chapo demanded approval of the final story, that is understandable from his perspective (Penn could — and, in fact, might — have unwittingly revealed clues to his whereabouts, for example). But it would only have been legitimate if it was a case of all or nothing — if the magazine refused to publish the story if he demanded any substantive changes, which is in fact a far from uncommon practice when high value interviews are involved. As it turned out, Chapo demanded nothing, so we’ll never know how far Rolling Stone was willing to go to publish its exclusive.

Penn’s sins, such as they are, aren’t his alone; they’re sins of the profession today. We should demand better of not only him, but of the entire industry. And he should at the very least be recognized for attempting to present El Chapo’s humanity, the rationales for his actions, and his understanding of the drug business without editorial comments or critique. This information challenges many of the narratives of the drug war, and its nonexistent possibility for success.

Finally, it’s hard to contest that Penn gave his readers one hell of a caper. It’s not hard to imagine it winding up at the heart of a great action-journalism movie … starring, of course, Sean Penn. 

Mark LeVine is a professor of history at the University of California at Irvine and a distinguished visiting professor at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies. He is a co-editor, with Mathias Mossberg, of “One Land, Two States: Israel and Palestine as Parallel States.”

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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