With activist-actors like Sean Penn, who needs journalists? Or journalistic ethics, according to those who took issue with the two-time Oscar winner’s exclusive interview for Rolling Stone magazine with Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman while the notorious drug kingpin was on the lam. The magazine posted Penn’s 10,000-word article online Jan. 9, a day after Guzman was recaptured.
It’s a storyline right out of Hollywood that equals the big-screen biopic Guzman hopes Tinseltown will someday produce. Rolling Stone, which is currently tied up in a lawsuit involving a debunked story it published last April about a gang rape at the University of Virginia, is now embroiled in a debate about the ethics involved in shielding a source — who is also a dangerous fugitive — and giving him editorial approval of the story.
Some of Rolling Stone’s most vocal criticism has come from Mexican reporters who put their lives on the line daily to report Mexico’s deadly drug trade. According to Alfredo Corchado, bureau chief for The Dallas Morning News in Mexico City, Penn’s interview was an “epic insult to journalists who died in the name of truth.”
“When you’re not really challenging the person and have agreed to submit the story for approval, it sounds more like a Hollywood entertainment,” Corchado told The Washington Post. “It’s not on par with the sacrifice of many of my colleagues in Mexico and throughout the world who have lost their lives fighting censorship.”
Gene Policinski, chief operating officer of the Newseum Institute and senior vice president of the Institute’s First Amendment Center, agreed.
“Surrendering editorial control to your subject makes you little more than a stenographer and not a journalist,” he said.
Policinski explained, however, that Penn’s interview wasn’t a violation of journalistic ethics.
“While people may have ethical issues with someone meeting with a criminal for the purpose of news and information, unless you are abetting in the act of a crime, there shouldn’t be any legal impediment,” he said.
In his article, Penn detailed the steps he undertook to protect his clandestine meeting last fall with Guzman: burner phones, anonymous email addresses, encrypted messages and chartered jets. Mexican authorities have suggested that Penn’s secret efforts to secure the interview with Guzman may have unwittingly led to the drug lord’s apprehension.
Political blogger Matthew Yglesias thought Guzman’s ultimate arrest far outweighed the debate surrounding the story.
“Sean Penn infiltrated a dangerous Mexican drug cartel leading to the apprehension of a wanted killer and everyone’s criticizing his prose?” he tweeted Sunday.