Rolling Stone faces criticism over ‘El Chapo’ interview

Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman is made to face the press as he is escorted to a helicopter in handcuffs by Mexican soldiers and marines at a federal hangar in Mexico City, Mexico, Friday. (AP Photo/Marco Ugarter)

Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman is made to face the press as he is escorted to a helicopter in handcuffs by Mexican soldiers and marines at a federal hangar in Mexico City, Mexico, Friday. (AP Photo/Marco Ugarter)

NEW YORK — It was a big scoop, and one Rolling Stone may well regret.

The magazine made stunning news over the weekend by revealing that actor Sean Penn landed a rare interview last fall with the notorious drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman while Guzman was on the run after escaping through a tunnel from a maximum-security Mexican prison. Guzman was recaptured Friday in Mexico after a shootout that killed five of his associates and wounded one marine.

Penn’s long and often rambling essay, widely mocked on social media, included comments from Guzman on everything from his childhood to his thoughts on the drug trade.

It also raised questions of ethics and judgment, namely whether Penn should have met secretly with one of the world’s most-wanted fugitives, whether the actor crossed the line by giving Guzman approval over the article before it was published, and whether Penn trivialized El Chapo’s murderous past by asking him such questions as “Do you have any dreams?” and “If you could change the world, would you?”

A Rolling Stone spokeswoman did not immediately return requests for comment.

Penn’s story ran nine months after Rolling Stone retracted its discredited story about a gang rape at a fraternity party at the University of Virginia. The magazine was strongly criticized for relying too strongly on the account of the alleged victim and failing to carry out basic fact-checking. It is being sued for tens of millions of dollars by the fraternity, former frat members and a university administrator.

Writing for Rolling Stone, Penn acknowledged that Guzman was granted prior approval over the article (Guzman requested no changes, according to the actor), a violation of the commonly held rules of journalistic integrity.

“Allowing any source control over a story’s content is inexcusable. The practice of pre-approval discredits the entire story — whether the subject requests changes or not,” Andrew Seaman, chairman of the ethics committee of the Society of Professional Journalists, said in a blog post titled “Rolling Stone Gathers No Accolades.”

“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.”

Penn, an Oscar-winning actor who played a drug dealer in the 1985 movie “The Falcon and the Snowman,” has had news-making encounters in other countries. In 2002, as the U.S. was threatening war against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, Penn visited the country and met with senior officials. He has also spoken with such foreign critics of the U.S. as Fidel Castro and Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez.

Rolling Stone has long mixed aggressive investigative and political reporting with coverage of rock stars and other celebrities. Former staff writers such as Greil Marcus and Jim DeRagotis have accused publisher Jann Wenner of allowing undue input from interview subjects or interfering with music reviews he found too negative about artists he likes.

“It’s unfortunately in keeping with Jann’s tendency to ignore professional scruples in an effort to curry favor with celebrities,” said Robert Draper, a correspondent for GQ and author of “Rolling Stone Magazine: The Uncensored History,” said of the El Chapo story.

Joaquin "El Chapo" GuzmanRolling StoneSean PennUS

If you find our journalism valuable and relevant, please consider joining our Examiner membership program.
Find out more at www.sfexaminer.com/join/

Just Posted

People fish at a dock at Islais Creek Park on Thursday, June 10, 2021. (Kevin N. Hume/The Examiner)
What Islais Creek tells us about rising sea levels in San Francisco

Islais Creek is an unassuming waterway along San Francisco’s eastern industrial shoreline,… Continue reading

Organizer Jas Florentino, left, explains the figures which represent 350 kidnapped Africans first sold as slaves in the United States in 1619 in sculptor Dana King’s “Monumental Reckoning.” The installation is in the space of the former Francis Scott Key monument in Golden Gate Park. (Kevin N. Hume/The Examiner)
What a reparations program would look like in The City

‘If there’s any place we can do it, it’s San Francisco’

Officer Joel Babbs, pictured at a protest outside the Hall of Justice in 2017, is representing himself in an unusually public police misconduct matter. <ins>(Courtesy Bay City News)</ins>
The strange and troubling story of Joel Babbs: What it tells us about the SFPD

The bizarre and troubling career of a whistle-blowing San Francisco police officer… Continue reading

Real solutions to California’s wildfire problems

By Dan Walters CalMatters Physicist Albert Einstein is widely, albeit erroneously, thought… Continue reading

Father Paul J. Fitzgerald, President of the University of San Francisco, gives the invocation before Mayor London Breed takes the oath of office at City Hall on Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2020. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)
What universities learned from distance learning during COVID-19: A USF perspective

By Rev. Paul J. Fitzgerald, S.J. The relief is palpable. With vaccination… Continue reading

Most Read