Sean Penn’s account of his secret visit with escaped cartel leader Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, published online by Rolling Stone shortly after Guzman’s recapture in Sinaloa earlier this month, received the Charlie Rose treatment Sunday night, as the veteran TV newsman interviewed Penn—introduced as an “Oscar-winning actor and self-described ‘experiential journalist'”—for CBS’ “60 Minutes.” If you were waiting for the start of an apology tour, though, you’d have been sorely disappointed.
Penn calls criticism of the Rolling Stone story—which has focused on his lack of journalistic expertise and the magazine’s decision to grant Guzman final approval in order to secure an audience with El Chapo—”an incredible hypocrisy and an incredible lesson in just how much [journalists] don’t know and how disserved we are.” (“The subject did not ask for any changes,” a note at the top of the article’s online version reads.) Publisher Jann Wenner defended the choice to CNN’s Brian Stelter last week, while none other than New York Times executive editor Dean Baquet said the paper would not have run the piece under these restrictions.
Penn, who says he hoped the story would provoke a difficult conversation about the War on Drugs, laments the fact that he and El Chapo became the topic of discussion, though it’s unclear exactly how he believes the article would have achieved his desired ends.
“[T]he Penn interview is a bit of a stunt,” wrote the New Yorker’s Patrick Radden Keefe, who has covered El Chapo extensively. “A mutually admiring jungle bro session, replete with tequila, that was written up in a florid, Gonzo fashion.” As Keefe notes, by contrast, Mexican reporters covering the drug war have been “killed, beaten, intimated” and censored by the score. (It was in fact Mexican actress Kate del Castillo, currently slated to appear in Netflix’s Spanish-language drama “Ingobernable,” who attracted El Chapo’s interest, as Rose mentions; she connected Penn with the “most wanted man in the world,” who didn’t know who the actor was until a month before the interview.)
Indeed, to read Penn’s account, which attracted the derision of many on Twitter for its poorly edited purple prose, is to encounter the sort of out-of-touch Hollywood grandstanding so often decried by right-wing politicians desperate to paint liberalism and elitism as synonyms. (The actor admits to Rose that his language can be “flamboyant.”) Penn comes off as a self-styled Hunter S. Thompson, innocent of laptops and his own privilege alike. “But I’m in my rhythm,” Penn writes by way of justifying the measures taken to earn Guzman’s trust, shortly before glossing his subject as “a businessman first.”
Penn is no stranger to politics, of course, and he’s unapologetic about that. At his hugely successful recent Haiti fundraiser in Hollywood over Golden Globes weekend, he did not discuss the Rolling Stone interview, which was then swiftly going viral. As the New York Daily News points out, he mentioned the absence of WMDs in Iraq in his acceptance speech after winning Best Actor for “Mystic River,” and was equally praised and derided for swooping into New Orleans, shotgun in hand, following Hurricane Katrina.
“My article failed, let me be clear,” Penn tells Rose near the end of the “60 Minutes” segment. “My article has failed, in that everything that’s spoken about is everything but what I was trying to speak about.”