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Rolling Stone and 'El Chapo': Journalism or entertainment? (+video)

A Rolling Stone interview with Joaquín 'El Chapo' Guzmán, the Mexican drug lord, by actor Sean Penn raises questions about how journalism is evolving.

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Actor Sean Penn (l.) shakes hands with Mexican drug lord Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán in Mexico, in this undated Rolling Stone handout photo obtained by Reuters on Jan. 10, 2016.

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Rolling Stone’s decision to publish actor Sean Penn’s interview with Mexican drug kingpin Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán has created a stir – much of it over what some see as an increasingly blurred line between information and entertainment.

The interview, which was published online Saturday, nearly three months after the actual encounter, came about after the notorious head of the Sinaloa cartel contacted a popular Mexican actress about making a movie of his life.

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According to Rolling Stone, the crime lord was given approval over what would be published. And that arrangement has been a key sticking point for media critics.

“How can you seriously cover someone who has final say over anything you write?” asks Mark Tatge, a media expert at the University of South Carolina (USC) in Columbia.

Some have also lamented what such a story could mean for full-time journalists, especially those in Mexico, who are probing dangerous topics. And critics have even brought up legal questions, though most agree there are few grounds for criminal prosecution so far.

But the larger issue is  the ongoing “celebritization” of the information landscape, Mr. Tatge says.

Rolling Stone is a national publication with a reputation for interviewing celebrities. The article about Mr. Guzmán describes him as an impoverished youth who took up the drug trade because he had no other way to make a living.

This portrayal is nothing short of whitewashing, some say.

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“Regardless of [Mr. Penn’s] intentions, he is promoting the impression that ‘El Chapo’ is a human being like the rest of us and his actions place him at the same level of fame as Penn himself,” says Huffington Post political blogger Mario Almonte via e-mail.

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Video from Penn’s interview has gone viral, nudging the crime lord into hero status, suggests John Goodman, a former CBS News producer.

Tatge says that increasingly, his students do not grasp the difference between entertainment and serious reporting on important issues. “We’re getting to the point where there are almost no standards anymore,” he says.

These days, he notes, anyone who wants to call himself or herself a journalist can get published somewhere. “But that doesn’t make them a journalist,” he says, adding with a rueful laugh, “I can unclog a drain, but that doesn’t make me a plumber.”

Part of the problem is that Penn is hardly an impartial narrator, Mr. Goodman says in an e-mail: “Penn is not a journalist, he's an advocate. So the interview has no credibility.”

The Rolling Stone portrayal of Guzmán irked Mexican journalists in particular, with some suggesting publicly that Penn’s actions undermine their job, which is already perilous. A number of reporters have ended up dead after writing unfavorable coverage of the Mexican drug trade.

Some experts, however, defended what Penn tried to do.

“From the view of an overwhelming number of First Amendment scholars, it doesn’t matter whether Penn, a professional actor, is a card-carrying member of a conventional news media outlet,” Arthur Hayes, an associate professor of communications at Fordham University in New York, writes in an e-mail. “He still enjoys the same First Amendment protections for newsgathering as full-time and freelance reporters at NBC, the New York Times or Slate.com.”

Attempts by the Monitor to obtain comment from Rolling Stone were unsuccessful. The magazine’s article states that no changes were made as a result of the arrangement with Guzmán to approve the story.

Mexican authorities have stated an interest in talking to both Penn and the actress who arranged the interview, Kate del Castillo. But most legal experts agree that there is a lack of legal recourse – “in the United States, anyway,” says Thomas McDonnell, a professor at Pace Law School in White Plains, N.Y. If Penn had harbored or materially aided Guzmán in any way, “then perhaps, but there is no evidence of anything like that so far,” he says.

In fact, Mexican authorities have said that tracking information from the Penn interview helped locate Guzmán, who was recaptured on Friday, the day before the Rolling Stone interview was published.

The entire debate, however, strikes criminal defense attorney Kacey McBroom as an attempt to overly simplify a complex man. Her experience shows her that even the most hardened criminals have good qualities. 

"People seem most shocked at Penn’s characterization of El Chapo as charismatic, disarming and simple.... I’ve represented people (particularly when I was a public defender) that have committed terrible crimes," writes Ms. McBroom, a partner of the Los Angeles-based law firm Kaedian LLP, in an e-mail.  "Much of the time, the individuals, at least in my company, were gentle, thoughtful, charming, complicated, human."  

"Like it or not, the people we lock up are human," she adds. Guzmán "is not all bad – no one is. I see a lot of ethical problems here, but not so much with what Penn did as with the media's inability to address this concept honestly...."