Sean Penn’s message overlooked amidst journalism critiques
Sean Penn earned the ire of journalists around the world when Rolling Stone published his article “El Chapo Speaks,” in which he told the story of Mexican drug kingpin Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman. Journalists take issue with the article largely on the grounds of journalistic ethics: a condition of the article’s publication was Guzman’s approval. If viewed as journalism, I agree: the article is a sham. However, Penn’s recent interview on “60 Minutes” has led me to believe that his piece has been misunderstood. Viewed in the context of his statements, the article’s purpose was to paint a picture of a man; it is essentially a short biography. Providing information—providing journalism—wasn’t his intent. His intent was to tell a story.
“El Chapo Speaks” understandably confused journalists upon publication. Ethics aside, the article is pervasively strange: Penn includes superfluous details, such as his flatulence; and his interview includes questions such as “how is your relationship with your mom?” Article alone, I understand journalists’ initial frustration. It seemed as if Penn’s strange questions ruined the interview of a lifetime, and his ethical error rendered any salvageable material useless.
But Penn’s “60 Minutes” interview with Charlie Rose clears up all confusion. When asked for his purpose, Penn says that he does “experiential journalism,” which he defines with the statement: “I don’t have to be the one that reports on the alleged murders or the amount of narcotics that are brought in. I go and I spend time in the company of another human being, which everyone is.” What Penn is defining here is not journalism at all. Compare his purpose with that of journalism, which the American Press Institute defines as “to provide citizens with the information they need to make the best possible decision about their lives, their communities, their societies, and their governments.” Penn is shying away from providing information, such as about the amount of narcotics brought in. This mismatch in intent explains the strange interview questions about the kingpin’s mother—information and journalism aren’t his purpose.
Penn’s reasons for telling the kingpin’s story are more nuanced than information-providing. He sees America’s perception of Guzman as flawed; we consider him a monster rather than a man, and that blinds us to the problems with our drug policy. Penn’s story is trying to rewrite the narrative behind the policy and trying to give us reason to change it. As psychologist Jerome Bruner explains in his book “Actual Minds, Possible Worlds,” there are two ways to interpret our experiences: propositionally, or through pure logic, and narratively, through personal experiences and stories. Propositionally, we can determine that America’s drug policy is a failure. Guzman’s Wikipedia page already lists his successor; his capture, a focal point of our policy, has done nothing to interrupt the business he ran. But propositional interpretation is not as powerful as narrative interpretation, so altering the narrative behind our policies provides powerful impetus to change them. By painting Guzman as a man, Penn has tried to provide that narrative reason for change, and it is tragic that his article, as he put it, “has failed.”
Penn’s failure is tragic on two levels: that a man committed to such a cause is being belittled for his effort and that his article was ineffective in raising awareness of the failure of our current drug policies. The actor has cultivated a notable presence as a social activist. He has been involved with a variety of causes, including condemning the Iraq War, providing aid to the victims of Hurricane Katrina, supporting same-sex marriage and continuing to operate a non-profit to support victims of the Haitian earthquake. It is, on a personal level, sad that a man clearly dedicated to social activism is being criticized for it.
Beyond Penn’s intentions, the article’s failure to bring attention to America’s inoperative drug policy is regrettable. The kingpin is just a symptom of the society he grew up in, and has already been replaced by his right-hand man, Ismael Zambada Garcia. Compare cartels to the prohibition-era Mafia, which funded itself through the sale of alcohol. Passing the 21st amendment signaled the end of the crime syndicate as it quickly lost money and, thus, influence. If we want to stop cartel violence, we need to attack them economically by treating substance abuse as a mental health issue and by creating legal, controlled channels for the acquisition of recreational drugs. We should honor Penn’s effort by remembering that since America’s policies create cartels, we are accountable for their violence and should advocate for new policy to end this senseless violence.