Reporters Slam Sean Penn’s Interview With El Chapo: ‘It’s Not Journalism’

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January 11, 2016 1:48 p.m.
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Update: Jan. 11, 2016, 2:35 PM ET

Almost as soon as Rolling Stone’s first scoop of the year, an interview with the Sinaloa Cartel’s bloody kingpin known as “El Chapo,” was published late Saturday night, the critiques began rolling in.

Chief among them was an ethical critique of a “disclosure” at the top of the interview explaining that actor Sean Penn had sought the approval of El Chapo, whose real name is Joaquín Archivaldo Guzmán Loera, before publication.

The interview, headlined “El Chapo Speaks,” begins with an italicized note for the reader which states: “An understanding was brokered with the subject that this piece would be submitted for the subject’s approval before publication.”

The disclosure further stated that Guzmán, who has been on the run from Mexican authorities since he escaped from one of the country’s maximum security prisons through an elaborate tunnel, did not request any changes.

A blog post published shortly after the story went live on Saturday by Andrew Seaman, chairman of the Society of Professional Journalists ethics committee, offered a harsh critique of the magazine’s practices. Despite not making changes to the final piece for the drug baron, Seaman wrote that to even offer the option “is inexcusable.”

“Allowing any source control over a story’s content is inexcusable,” Seaman, who is also a reporter with Reuters, wrote. “The practice of pre-approval discredits the entire story – whether the subject requests changes or not. The writer, who in this case is an actor and activist, may write the story in a more favorable light and omit unflattering facts in an attempt to not to be rejected.”

Alfredo Corchado, who critiqued the piece on Twitter, shared his ethical concerns with the BBC’s Newshour on Sunday. Corchado is the Mexico City bureau chief for The Dallas Morning News.

He called it an “epic insult” to journalists “seeking the truth” in Mexico.

“I’m saying it’s not journalism,” Corchado said. “And to call it journalism is an epic insult to journalists in Mexico and beyond who have paid the ultimate price seeking the truth.”

Corchado said the conditions Penn agreed to—no follow-up questions, avoiding certain issues—were unheard of.

Robert Draper, who wrote the book “Rolling Stone Magazine: The Uncensored History,” told the Associated Press over the weekend that the decision to give away editorial control is in-line with previous decisions by the magazine’s publisher, Jann Wenner.

“It’s unfortunately in keeping with Jann’s tendency to ignore professional scruples in an effort to curry favor with celebrities,” Draper told the AP.

New York Times editor Dean Baquet told Margaret Sullivan, the paper’s public editor, on Monday that he “would have walked away from the interview.” The newspaper’s standards editor, Philip B. Corbett, said the paper does not grant “prepublication approval to anyone.”

“It’s hard for me to imagine giving a drug lord preapproval,” Baquet told Sullivan by phone.

A Mexican law enforcement official said the interview likely led to the recapture of the fugitive drug baron.

Penn told the AP early Monday morning via email that he has “nothin’ to hide” when asked about photos of himself and Kate Del Castillo, the Mexican actress who introduced the two, taken by Mexican authorities before their October meeting.

Wenner told the Times on Sunday the approval was “a small thing” to get the story.

“I don’t think it was a meaningful thing in the first place. We have let people in the past approve their quotes in interviews,” Wenner said.

“In this case, it was a small thing to do in exchange for what we got,” he continued.

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