Sean Penn's El Chapo Interview: Gonzo Spectacle Trumps Journalism (Guest Column)

Sean Penn and El Chapo shaking hands - H 2016
Courtesy of ABC News

The actor’s jungle adventure does not raise old ethical dilemmas, but new notions about how non-fiction is presented.

Rolling Stone has certainly enjoyed a publicity bonanza for its scoop interview with Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, the fugitive kingpin of the Sinaloa narcotics cartel, published to coincide with his recapture by Mexican authorities after six months on the lam.

Almost as loud as the hoopla around the magazine’s exclusive has been the journalistic tut-tutting about movie star Sean Penn’s ethics in securing his scoop.

— What was he doing granting publicity to a gangster with so much blood on his hands?

— What was Rolling Stone thinking when it granted Guzman prepublication quote approval?

— What is the value of a promise of secrecy and untraceability to a source, when it is attached to a paparazzi-magnet celebrity?

— Especially, what is the point of all that intrigue and derring-do and subterfuge, when the end result is the blandest sequence of questions, submitted in writing in advance, evoking answers that are the merest pabulum, with no opportunity for in-person follow-ups?

It turns out that none of the first three of these ethical quandaries is interesting. Of course, journalists should try to get interviews with notorious figures, the more notorious the better. Second, Guzman never sought to exercise the magazine’s offer of prepublication approval, so no harm no foul. As for Rolling Stone’s role in making it easier for Mexican law enforcement to find Guzman’s hideout, that is a problem for the fugitive who granted the interview, not for the magazine that sought it.

The fourth question — whether all that subterfuge was worth the slim pickings delivered by the eventual Q&A — reveals what is instructive about this episode. It does not raise old ethical dilemmas, but new notions about how non-fiction is presented.

It was precisely the intrigue and the derring-do that made this story sensational. The spectacle of gathering this scoop was far more riveting for us readers than the underlying information that the scoop happened to deliver. Why do we read this yarn? To hear tales of the celebrity Penn venturing into the remote jungles of Mexico with Kate del Castillo, the telenovela gangstress and rebel champion of Robin Hood banditry, as his go-between, to talk to a fugitive narcotics kingpin with a Hollywood biopic deal on his agenda.

The nightly newscast reports of Guzman’s capture enjoyed the same giddy mixture of journalism, reality-TV and celebrity scoop: ABC News’ Matt Gutman, for example, mixed gunfight footage supplied by Mexican marines, with paparazzo photography of Sean and del Costello, with his own crouching reenactment of El Chapo’s flight through three-foot-high city sewer tunnels, as if he were some latter-day The Third Man.

To be sure, such a gonzo style, in which the adventure of landing the story is the point of telling it, has antecedents, not least among them Hunter S. Thompson at Rolling Stone itself. More recently, Michael Moore developed his personalized documentary style in which his role as investigator, not the actual object of his investigation, supplied the narrative with its thrust.

The current manifestation of that tradition comes at a time when the authority, institutions, and conventions of traditional journalism are eroding. Thus, even though the target of the questions about Penn’s behavior was an ethical one, the underlying anxiety they evoked was about the breakdown in journalism’s preeminence in the delivery of newsworthy non-fiction.

Specifically, what if non-fiction, as it becomes less institutional and more entrepreneurial, also becomes more concerned about the spectacle of the pursuit — rather than the pre-existing reality that it always has been a journalist’s job to observe? Penn’s jungle adventure comes at the same moment as the Serial podcast and the Netflix documentary series Making a Murderer: both true crime examinations that make the pursuit of the story seem its most dynamic aspect.

While it is accurate to spot two divergent trends in non-fiction storytelling — the institutional, journalistic, observational tradition; and the entrepreneurial, reality-TV style, participatory innovation — it is misleading to assign these two trends to those two discrete sectors. The same divergence is in evidence in the product of mainstream news organizations themselves.

Just think about the other Major Get of 2015, the one that rivals Penn’s with Guzman. That would be Diane Sawyer’s ABC News sit down with Bruce-soon-to-be-Caitlyn Jenner. It would be impossible to characterize Sawyer’s highly-choreographed and narrativized interview as any less of the spectacle of pursuit-and-encounter than Penn’s.

Just think, too, about the other two major television news events of 2015: the Republican Presidential debates orchestrated by FNC and CNN, the ones whose huge audiences announced that Campaign 2016 would dominate headlines for an entire 18 months, and that Donald Trump was truly a ratings magnet.

There is no way to describe the role of FNC or CNN in those events as the neutral journalistic observer of the activities of politicians, duly reporting to their audiences. Those spectacles were orchestrated as reality-TV spectacles by those networks, working more in the capacity of producers than of journalists, at least as responsible for putting on a compelling show as the candidates themselves.

In the end, Sean Penn’s relationship with El Chapo — the protagonist journalist in pursuit of a dramatic one-on-one — is not so different from Megyn Kelly’s with Donald Trump. Or Diane Sawyer’s with Caitlyn Jenner.

Andrew Tyndall is an independent news analyst and publisher of The Tyndall Report.