Shafer: Come on, Penn's interview with El Chapo wasn't that bad

Don’t get Politico’s Jack Shafer wrong — in terms of writing and skill, the Rolling Stone interview conducted by Sean Penn with Joaquín Archivaldo “El Chapo” Guzmán Loera was atrocious. In fact, at the end of his media criticism essay, Shafer says it might work better as modern poetry, and invites his readers to submit the best verses they can make out of Penn’s prose. Criticisms of Rolling Stone’s decision to use Penn at all, though, reeks of guild politics, Shafer writes:

Giving pre-publication approval to a mobster is only one of the transgressions Penn was charged with. He violated literary standards, too. Gawker, famous for posting a Hulk Hogan sex tape, called Penn’s piece “a rambling jumble of platitudes and reeks of the white-hot passion of an enduring and powerful teenage angst,” and proceeded to excerpt his most stupid passages. Hot Air accused Penn and Rolling Stone of fluffing up El Chapo’s reputation. “Is Sean Penn’s interview with Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in the next issue?” asked NBC News correspondent Luke Russert. “El Chapo, meet El Jerko,” commented the New York Post. No less than presidential candidate Sen. Marco Rubio turned media critic for a picosecond to denounce the article as “grotesque.”

But so much of the furor generated by Penn’s story is misplaced: Everybody who criticized it might profit by giving it a rethink. Yes, the story is ineptly written, as if edited in a Waring blender. But let’s not judge the work of an amateur with a professional lens. When you break down the complaints against the piece, most of them are of the “How dare you not conform to our standards!” variety. The guild goes nuts whenever a craftsman—no matter how skilled or incompetent—violates its rules. You can’t do what you just did because we don’t do it, is usually the extent of the guild’s logic.

Shafer has a point in theory, but much of the criticism he cites above dealt with the substance of the article, not Penn’s status as an amateur. Using Jazz’ piece as a cite on that argument is especially odd, since he barely mentions Penn and nothing about his moonlighting as a journalist. In fact, Jazz lays the blame on Rolling Stone for running the hagiographic piece at all, not on Penn for writing it.

It’s true that the criticism Shafer cites was easy to find, mostly on social media, which may have the normally sharp Shafer seeing it where it didn’t exist. Many of us have felt that kind of guildism directed at ourselves, as we found our way to success in New Media and endured plenty of resentment from established media along the way (although not from Shafer, who has been consistent about his anti-guildism). So, those of us who may have started as amateurs ourselves are not going to begrudge someone else attempting to make their way into media work from a different career. Shafer needed to provide some actual examples of this rather than extrapolating from non-existent arguments, and the citations he does use all point to substance — on which Shafer largely agrees anyway.

Besides, Shafer argues, some of these pushbacks on the granting of editorial control have more than a hint of hypocrisy to them, too. In terms of media ethics, Shafer insists that giving editorial control to a drug lord isn’t an egregious violation in journalism — and that it does have precedents:

For example, Cillizza’s implication that other media organizations would not give pre-publication approval to subject as Rolling Stone did is provably wrong. It has happened in his own shop! In a March 1996 American Journalism Review piece by Alicia C. Shepard about pre-publication review, Washington Post reporter Jay Mathews explained that he had been reading or faxing story drafts to primary sources for a decade. And he was doing it with the approval of the newspaper’s managing editor, Robert G. Kaiser. And these were workaday features by Mathews, not features about fugitive drug lords.

I don’t claim absolute equivalence between Penn and Rolling Stone and Mathews and the Post. But compromises made are comparable—the subjects were allowed to critique the journalists’ products. Because El Chapo reportedly didn’t request any changes, we don’t know how far Rolling Stone was willing to negotiate had he really gone in and started rewriting the Penn piece to his own specs. But in the Mathews case, we know he shared copy with subjects and was very willing to make changes if they alerted him to errors of fact. “If [the subjects] want to argue about the thrust or tone, I’d listen but I tell them I’m not going to change anything,” as Mathews explained his methodology to AJR. Granted, we’re talking two different lines in the sand, but lines in the sand they both are. Critics of Penn and Rolling Stone would have more to bark about if it had actually made changes at El Chapo’s request.

Some journalists disagree, of course, that the two situations would be comparable at all. The very fact that editorial control was granted to a fugitive drug lord will have real-world complications for journalists in other danger spots, Investors Business Daily’s Monica Showalter writes after talking with Nate Thayer. Thayer interviewed Pol Pot as a freelancer, and didn’t cave on editorial control. Thayer warns that Rolling Stone has set a precedent that might impact others:

In the course of getting that interview, not once did Thayer compromise his journalistic principles — not once. He had to develop contacts in the Thai military so as to obtain permission to go into the Khmer Rouge no-go zones, develop contacts inside Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge communists in the jungle, develop contacts with assorted other marauders and bad guys, and continuously persist in the back and forth that goes with such a high-risk endeavor. Thayer also had to evade random roadside killers, terrible bouts of malaria and other jungle diseases, and weather unbelievable hazards, all for the sake of the journey and his achievement. In short, he had to take the long way to the dictator, the principled way, not the short-and-easy compromised way that Penn did.

Thayer is an old friend and I asked him what he thought about it:

“The difference between Penn and a journalist are clear,” Thayer wrote by email. “He has every right to do what he does and meet who he wants. But he advocates for people’s political positions. Whatever that is, it is not journalism. And it puts the rest of us at risk. I hang out with rogue bad guys for a living (Pol Pot, the NKorean Kim’s, the KKK etc), but it is vital to be clear on ones independence. They all respect that because they know that is where real credibility . . . is based upon. They need to go through the sausage making process. Otherwise one falls into the ‘useful idiot’ category. The jury is out on whether Penn falls in what category.”

In the end, though, the fault really doesn’t lie with Sean Penn. He’s the amateur reporter, not the professional publisher. This goes right back to Rolling Stone and their repeated incompetence at editorial control and discipline even outside of handing the reins to El Chapo. They could have chosen to reject Penn’s amateurish and unethical work, but published it anyway. Penn’s extremist politics and infatuation with thugs makes him the higher-profile target, but it’s Jann Wenner’s shop that is the real culprit here.

Addendum: Fausta reports that Penn first met with El Chapo through the sponsorship of the Venezuelan Cartel de los Soles. Not surprisingly, the Chavistas also make an appearance in her explanation. Be sure to read it all.