Sean Penn: I regret my El Chapo interview didn't spark debate about the war on drugs

To paraphrase Frank Sinatra: Regrets … Sean Penn has a few, but then again, not the ones you expect him to mention. CBS News’ Charlie Rose met with the actor-cum-reporter to discuss his hagiographic Rolling Stone interview with Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán. “Let me be clear,” Penn tells Rose,”my article has failed.” That failure isn’t on journalism ethics, but on the fact that the debate it produced focused on nothing but Penn’s ethics and motivations:

But his regret is not of glamorizing the world’s most notorious drug trafficker or that he may have aided and abetted a fugitive on the run.

Rather, the actor said he is most disappointed that his article “failed” to create a dialogue about the war on drugs.

“I have a regret that the entire discussion about this article ignores its purpose, which was to try to contribute to this discussion about the policy in the war on drugs,” Penn said in an interview to be aired Sunday on CBS’s “60 Minutes.”

Penn wants to set the record straight on another topic, too, which is whether he dimed out El Chapo to the Mexican authorities. Penn accused Mexico of attempting to set him up to be killed for embarrassing them, and said Guzmán’s capture had nothing to do with his interview. Penn met with El Chapo in an entirely different location, and months earlier:

“Here’s the things that we know: We know that the Mexican government… they were clearly very humiliated by the notion that someone found him before they did,” he said.

“Well, nobody found him before they did. We didn’t – we’re not smarter than the DEA or the Mexican intelligence,” he added. “We had a contact upon which we were able to facilitate an invitation.”

Penn bluntly tells Rose that he thinks the Mexican government wants to put him in danger as retribution for embarrassing them:

ROSE: Do you believe that the Mexican government released this in part because they wanted to see you blamed, and to put you at risk?

PENN: Yes.

ROSE: They wanted to encourage the cartel to put you in their crosshairs?

PENN: Yes.

ROSE: Are you fearful for your life?

PENN: Yeah.

It’s hard to blame him for fearing for his life now. Whether this is revenge or not by Mexican authorities, the cartel probably would have wondered about it too. But the idea that Penn needed an interview with El Chapo to get a conversation going about the war on drugs is beyond ludicrous. He’s an A-list celebrity with plenty of access to the media. He may not find the conversation going in the direction he’d prefer, but Penn didn’t need to blow smoke up El Chapo’s skirts to begin that conversation. And the naive treatment of his subject and the acquiescence to Guzmán’s demand for editorial control pretty much discredits him as a part of that conversation anyway.

Activists and media organizations like Reason have pushed the conversation about the war on drugs effectively enough to change laws in the US on marijuana, for instance. They didn’t need to paint murderous cartel leaders as misunderstood folk heroes in order to do so. All Penn did was set those efforts back, and put himself in danger unnecessarily.

With all that said, the issues in the Rolling Stone article may have originated with Penn, but the responsibility for its publication rests squarely on Rolling Stone.

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Jazz Shaw 10:01 PM on June 07, 2023