The ethics of Sean Penn’s ‘El Chapo’ conversation

Before Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman Loera was recaptured by Mexican authorities, the American movie star and activist Sean Penn met with Mexico’s most wanted man in a jungle hideaway to interview him for Rolling Stone magazine. William Brangham discusses the ethical questions raised by Rolling Stone’s methods with Angela Kocherga, Borderlands bureau director of Cronkite News.

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    The United States and Mexico are now trying to determine how to have the recently-captured drug kingpin El Chapo extradited from Mexico to the U.S.

    This weekend, Rolling Stone magazine published a story about El Chapo that could have come straight out of a Hollywood screenplay. It was written and reported by actor Sean Penn, who secretly visited the drug kingpin in Mexico before he'd been captured. But some are questioning the ethics of "Rolling Stone"'s methods.

    Our William Brangham has more.


    "Rolling Stone"'s article was the very first time the public has heard from Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman directly. The meeting between the drug lord and Sean Penn was set up by another actor, Kate del Castillo, one of Mexico's most famous TV stars.

    Rolling Stone gave the drug kingpin fugitive final approval of the piece. Sean Penn did spend an evening with Guzman. But Guzman's quotes in the piece came from a video recording after the actor sent him questions.

    According to the magazine, this photo accompanied the story for authentication purposes, proof that the two had met.

    Joining me for more on this is Angela Kocherga. She's the borderlands bureau director for Cronkite News at Arizona PBS and a professor at the Cronkite School of Journalism.

    Angela, thank you for joining us.

    I wonder if you could just tell me, what was your first reaction when you saw the Sean Penn piece in Rolling Stone?

  • ANGELA KOCHERGA, Borderlands Bureau Director, Cronkite News:

    Well, I thought, if anyone had gone to a Hollywood producer with this scenario, they would have been laughed out of the room, but, of course, this was the reality.

    You have this very famous Mexican actress. You have this Sean Penn, an actor/activist, and then you have got the most wanted man in Mexico meeting in this jungle hideaway. So, it was surprising.

    But the more difficult part of this for journalists was that it raised some very troubling issues about access and what constitutes real journalism, as opposed to more of a conversation, rather than what they're calling an interview.


    Well, let's talk about some of those issues.

    As we mentioned, Rolling Stone granted El Chapo final approval of the piece. The magazine points out that they didn't — he says he didn't actually want anything changed. But that's not a very common practice for journalists to grant their subjects.



    And, unfortunately, that's not a ringing endorsement of hard-hitting journalism, when your main subject gives it the green light without changing a single word. In Mexico, unfortunately, this is a reality. Self-censorship is a tool of survival. Many, many journalists, colleagues in Mexico, have to censor themselves in order to survive.

    News organizations, individual journalists have had to flee for their lives. Others have been kidnapped and killed in Mexico for covering organized crime and official corruption, which often intersects. So, this is really a very troubling thing, treated as kind of an entertainment-style news story, when we have people dying, journalists in Mexico risking their lives to bring their readers and viewers the truth.


    So, do you think the public is served in any way by Sean Penn's — quote, unquote — "interview" with El Chapo?


    I think if it had been characterized as more of a conversation. The actual content of the interview really doesn't reveal anything new.

    We get to see El Chapo and we hear it in his own words, but, I mean, he's basically just admitting, yes, I'm sending unknown amounts, I mean, giant amounts of drugs, heroin, meth, and every other kind of drug, across the border.

    But it's more the story behind the story that's fascinating, the fact that you have a Hollywood actor and a Mexican soap opera star who plays a queenpin, a drug queenpin, in a soap opera in Mexico finding their way into this jungle hideaway, at the invitation of Mexico's most wanted man.

    That story, how they were able to get there — and there are photos on — from Mexican paparazzi that actually show the two arriving in Mexico. So, it doesn't seem, as much as they wanted to make this a secret trip, it seemed that Mexican authorities probably had a way to track them.

    Almost every single person in every tiny town in Mexico knows who Kate del Castillo is.


    But take on this issue. You're a journalist. You have covered this story many, many years. You teach young journalists.

    Is there a circumstance that you would ever have agreed to these types of conditions, to let an actor go and interview a kingpin under these circumstances, with these kind of conditions put on it?


    I don't think it's a — we would call it journalism.

    You would call it a conversation between an actor and a drug lord. And that, in and of itself, the story behind the story, is fascinating, how they came together.

    But we also have to remember, although Chapo says, yes, I know drugs kill, but I do it for — because I was raised as a poor person in Mexico and there were no other recourses, I mean, those are real stories in Mexico,that there is real meat to that part of it.

    But he also runs the most brutal drug — one of the most brutal drug cartels in Mexico. I covered the very violent years in Ciudad Juarez, the border city across from El Paso, Texas, and 10,000 people were killed in the span of about five years, as the Sinaloa cartel, run by Chapo, took on the local hometown cartel, the Juarez cartel, and there was an absolute bloodbath.

    So, we can't forget the many, many lives that have been lost and the many journalists who have risked their lives trying to tell these stories and many others who have been silenced. There are entire regions of Mexico that are part of drug trafficking strongholds, where journalists cannot report anything about the drug cartel without prior approval.

    So, what Sean Penn did probably is not new for Mexican journalists, but he obviously faced none of the risks that they face every day.


    All right, and just for the record, we did reach out to Rolling Stone, and they had no comment to offer us.

    But, Angela Kocherga, Walter Cronkite School of Journalism at Arizona State University, thank you so much.


    Thank you.

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