Examining El Chapo’s Rolling Stone Interview

Encore: January 11, 2016

Encrypted messages. Burner phones. A secret rendezvous brokered by a Mexican soap star.

It sounds like the plot of a telenovela but it’s the very real details behind actor Sean Penn’s Rolling Stone interview with then-fugitive drug lord Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán Loera. The two had met secretly at Guzman’s Mexican hideaway where they dined on tacos and tequila just months after he had tunneled out of prison.

Mexican authorities recaptured Guzmán late last week, just before the article went live on the magazine’s site. Since then, the interview and the Rolling Stone’s decision to publish it have raised questions over journalistic ethics, especially considering the magazine is still reeling from a mishap that prompted a retraction and several lawsuits.

Peabody and Emmy Award-winning investigative journalist Lynn Sherr says the magazine didn’t commit any violations because the work simply isn’t journalism.

“If you call it what it is, which is a pre-production meeting for a movie or something like that, they didn’t go too far at all, they did what they had to do,” said Sherr, referring to reports that Guzman was trying to sell his life story for a movie. “It’s not journalism and it’s not journalism because right at the top of the article Rolling Stone admits that they gave the subject control over what was used in the piece. They then say that he didn’t ask for any changes, but going in when this is the rule, that’s not journalism.”

Additionally, Sherr said Penn’s questions were also too “soft” to be considered journalism.

“They were certainly the kind of questions you might ask if you were writing a script and if you’re trying to figure out how to put this together, and I don’t deny them that right,” she said.

The former correspondent for ABC’s 20/20 admitted the article fulfilled a public interest.

“I also want to say anytime anyone gets an interview or gets contact with someone that the world wants to know about, that’s legitimate,” she said. “I want to know who this guy is, I want to know what he thinks. But I would rather have the questions asked by somebody who understands what it is to ask questions and not someone who’s going for a different goal, which is either making a movie or I don’t know what the whole goal here was.”

But Sherr said that while Penn has earned credibility in the activist arena, his attempt to identify as a journalist without adhering to a code of ethics gives her some concern. (In the ROlling Stone story, Penn referred to the piece as journalism.)

“Here’s why it troubles me a little bit, because we’re living at a time when, because of the big explosion of media and the accessibility of media, certainly online media, everybody can be a journalist, a so-called journalist. Almost nobody is an editor,” she said. “Almost nobody is holding people’s feet to the fire. And as a result, I worry that the public has lost its ability to determine whats accurate, what’s not accurate. What matters, what doesn’t matter. If I may, what is truth, and what is truthiness, in the phrase of the great Stephen Colbert. Truthiness being what feels right as opposed to what might actually be right.”

Sherr wouldn’t directly say if she thought the interview would affect the magazine’s reputation, but she pointed out another impact it was having.

“I don’t think it’s a great feather in their cap as a journalistic organization. I think it certainly sells magazines,” she said. “And by the way, what was it doing on the front page of the New York Times today? Two huge articles, front page, New York Times today. So they got their recognition.”

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