Penn's prose opens can of unflattery words

Sean Penn shaking the hand of El Chapo Guzman, Mexican drug lord and fugitive. Photo / Supplied
Sean Penn shaking the hand of El Chapo Guzman, Mexican drug lord and fugitive. Photo / Supplied

As the Mexico City bureau chief for the Dallas Morning News for two decades, Alfredo Corchado has been on the front lines of the journalistic struggle to document the brutal toll of drug violence across Mexico.

That struggle is among the world's deadliest, with more than 60 Mexican journalists killed or having disappeared over the past decade, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Stories about government corruption, Mexico's middle-class exodus and drug violence have placed Corchado on the receiving end of numerous death threats that have forced him to flee the country for months at a time.

Like many of his courageous Mexican contemporaries, he has attempted to forge ahead, even as entire regions of the embattled nation - Sinaloa, Tamaulipas and Durango - have had their independent media silenced by the spectre of violence.

In these places, Corchado notes, nobody prints anything without cartel approval, including - it would seem - Sean Penn.

For Corchado and many of his colleagues, therein lies the problem with the American actor's controversial first-person account of meeting Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman.

Corchado said the story - published in Rolling Stone and submitted for Guzman's approval before it was made public - is evidence of the inherent conflict between journalism and entertainment.

"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 said.

"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." Referring to Penn, he added: "Is he serving the public or is he aggrandising himself?"

It's a question that has rippled across the journalism world, drawing as much criticism as it has undoubtedly drawn clicks. To many, Penn's prose revealed a troubling admiration for the man who "is one of the main players in the country's bloody drug wars, which have claimed at least 100,000 lives over the last decade", according to Quartz.

"As you dive deeper into the meandering mess, it becomes clear that Penn holds some sort of Hollywood-inspired reverence for El Chapo," Gawker's Melissa Cronin writes in a post that catalogues the story's worst lines.

For others, Penn's controversial account was reminiscent of the magazine's 9000-word debacle about a gang rape at the University of Virginia that never occurred. Jeet Heer, of the New Republic, wrote: "Rolling Stone sets standard journalist ethics aside to get story that will attract enormous attention. What could go wrong?"

Others, such as Vice correspondent Danny Gold, argued that Penn did what any other journalist desperate for the most sought-after scoop in the world would've done.

"Never a fan of Penn's journalism," Gold wrote, "but me and every other journo would have compromised a whole lot more to get an interview with El Chapo. Anyone else who says otherwise is lying."

MSNBC's Chris Hayes noted that ethical considerations have a way of becoming immaterial in the face of "enormous traffic".

He tweeted: "It's obviously, unambiguously indefensible to give the subject of an interview/ article final say over its publication. But the piece will generate enormous traffic & editorial norms are extremely weak in the face of the implacable logic of competitive markets."

Matthew Yglesias of Vox tweeted: "Sean Penn infiltrated a dangerous Mexican drug cartel leading to the apprehension of a wanted killer and everyone's criticising his prose?"

Joel Simon, the executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, suggested that people consider the degree of self-censorship occurring in communities across Mexico. Journalists in Mexico receive no protection from their Government, which is often complicit in the risks they take to write about.

"Should journalists ever interview criminals? I would say sure. But if you as a journalist interview someone like El Chapo, you better deliver some valuable and important information ... He had an assignment for a highly visible and important publication, and whether he delivered a story worthy of the risks he took, that's something the editors have to decide and the media itself should be debating."

- Washington Post, Bloomberg

Get the news delivered straight to your inbox

Receive the day’s news, sport and entertainment in our daily email newsletter

SIGN UP NOW

© Copyright 2016, NZME. Publishing Limited

Assembled by: (static) on production apcf05 at 08 Dec 2016 11:47:51 Processing Time: 1080ms