by Joe Shea
January 12, 2016
SEAN PENN'S SIN
BRADENTON, fla. -- In the rarefied world of broadcast journalism, where less than 100 people shape the news we hear each day, the succesful effort to interview an enormous newsmaker, when accomplished, is called a "get." Right now, Donald Trump is a huge "get," for instance, as would be Bill Cosby, or Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of ISIS. But the biggest "get" in the whole damned Universe last October was "El Chapo," or Joaquin "Shorty" Guzmán, and Sean Penn got that "get" for Rolling Stone.
Many of the poobahs claim Sean Penn didn't play fair: that he shouldn't have interviewed a convicted fugitive, or allowed Guzmán to make any changes he wanted in Penn's story (he didn't want any). But I would argue that the only "sin" was that Sean beat out the hundred-odd ruling poobahs of journalism, making them all look less competent than he is.
Hardly anyone on broadcast television takes real risks, with the possible exception of Anthony Bourdain, who seems to eat whatever's put in front of him in any country he's in. You don't see CBS anchors going into ISIS territory, as an example, and probably for good reason.
Sean Penn and Kate del Castillo had plenty of reason to avoid Guzmán, too, because he is surrounded by killers and is responsible for countless deaths, kidnappings and murders in several countries. But they didn't, and instead came back with a story that has become a worldwide sensation.
It's my belief that stories have a momentum of their own, and that it is the obligation of journalists to recognize when that trajectory should end in print. And the answer to that, when a story is finished, is always "now."
Holding stories to satisfy some qualm - presuming that publishing the story would not bring harm or even death to an innocent person - is unethical and wrong, I believe. Too often in modern journalism, the reason for the hold is that the publisher is negotiating quietly with the subject of the story for a better advertising contract down the line (or maybe I've become cynical). I had a story held that suppressed the fact of five deaths, and might have won me a Pulitzer, partly so the publisher could make a special arrangement with a university. I was compensated well, though, which took off some of the sting.
Penn's detractors are basically the same people who repeatedly told us Donald Trump would not run for President, and then that Trump's candidacy was a joke. Don Lemon of CNN announced Trump's decision on the air with a huge guffaw - he laughed his head off, live. When I saw him do that, I wrote an article for AR the next day, asking "Why are they laughing at the Donald?" It wasn't right, and before long the laughing stopped. The intense criticism of Sean Penn and his 10,000-word article in the current edition of Rolling Stone will meet the same fate, I think. It's the kind of story that makes your hands sweat.
Penn is a keen observer of his changing environment. He describes the entire process of the interview from the very beginning to the very end, noting every succeeding event and location and interesting object with care and precision. The only thing missing from the entire article, in fact, is Sean Penn. He never shares with us the plain facts of his celebrity, his wealth, his groupies, fans and entourage, his clout, connections and his personal ambitions. But perhaps that would be the story of Sean Penn, not Joaquin Guzmán.
I have interviewed people all over the world. One of my biggest "gets" was the founding father of Bangladesh, Sri Mujibur Rahman, in New Delhi, India, just a day after he signed the documents creating the new country. Another was an interview with the commander of a secret, well-concealed British bomb disposal site outside Belfast, Northern Ireland. Jimmy Breslin himself complimented me on that one. In The Philippines, I interviewed President Ferdinand Marcos live on national television, and he stole more money and probably killed as many people as n.
I also interviewed a man who was nearly as wanted as Guzmán, a fellow named Antonio Arguedas, who was chased around the entire planet by a host of intelliegence agencies from different countries because, as a high-ranking official in the Bolivian Army, he'd acquired the diary of Che Guevara from the Bolivian battlefield where Che died. Antonio had been on the payroll of the CIA, he admitted, he'd also acquired Che's hands and buried them in an ornate wooden box in the Bolivian mountains. The New York Times, the paper that refused to hold the Pentagon Papers, carried one- or two-paragraph stories every day for months on his long journey around the world, intending to throw off his pursuers before he delivered the diary to Che's friend, Fidel Castro, in Cuba.
Arguedas told me of bribes delivered by a CIA agent, whom he named, and by Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, which resulted in a big story in the Village Voice. I was asked to brief then-Rep. Ed Koch (D-NY) about it; Koch then questioned Rockefeller about the loans and bribes during the House Judiciary Committee hearings on Rocky's nomination as Vice-President of the United States. Arguedas, formerly the Minister of Bolivia - the country's top law enforcement officer - met me at the door of his room at the Hotel Virreyes in Mexico City with a pistol pointed at my head.
Those accomplishments pale in comparison to Sean Penn's as much as the Moon pales before the Sun. While I did interview a woman who had herself interviewed al-Baghdadi in a U.S. prison in Iraq, no one I ever interviewed or even saw from a distance compares to Sean Penn's interview of El Chapo. I would have gladly surrendered both my last two teeth and the few remaining inches of my colon for it. You can be sure that every broadcast newsman, anchor and tv producer would, too - and they've got a lot more teeth and colon than I do.
Because Sean Penn is well-known as an actor, many of the poobahs say he can't be a journalist. But I was a young actor in an Off-Off Broadway play the night I went up to Harlem when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., died. That story, written in longhand, instantly made me a very minor star, wined and dined by editors at Scribner's and Doubleday. Sean Penn will get a big-budget movie; I got lunch.
Jann Wenner is a fearless guy. I only met the owner of Rolling Stone once, at a [MORE] convention in New York, where I was introduced by my friend Lucian K. Truscott IV. Famously, Jann hired Hunter S. Thompson to cover the 1972 presidential campaign (Hunter drank me under the table in Aspen), yielding the "Fear and Loathing" books and movie. In 2015, Wenner had been scammed by a writer whose account of a rape at a University of Virginia fraternity house was almost as sensational as Penn's story, but was - unknown to Wenner - completely false. The fallout led to lawsuits, disgrace and deep regrets.
My former girlfriend was raped there, so I know it happens, and also that there are unwritten horror stories ongoing all over the world that go unreported. Jann got killed on that one, but he is one of the world's greatest journalists and publishers, and now he's come back at 'em with a doozie.
The starving children of Puno, Peru, and the deceitful, corrupt, disloyal agents of ISI, the Pakistani intelligence agency, still await exposure and our understanding; Joaquin Guzmán does not. Now he is a known quantity, thanks to Jann and Sean Penn and his friend Kate del Castillo, the actress. Now this murderer of thousands will spend 23 hours of every day of the rest of his life in a small, airless, very secure cell in Colorado - also, some say, thanks to Kate and to Sean Penn.
For their trouble, Sean Penn says, the Mexican government has spread the mistaken word that he was responsible for El Chapo's capture - and is trying to get him killed for that, Penn told CNN. The government was "infuriated," Penn said, that a journalist had been able to find and interview him before they could.
Does Sean Penn deserve the highest honor in journalism, the Pulitzer Prize? I say he does, for an act of consumnate bravery, unfailing grace and unyielding tenacity. It would be a terrible injustice to hurt him for it. I welcome him into the fold of our curious, brave, hard-shelled and long-winded breed - well done, Sean! All is forgiven - great get! You're a journalist and then some.
Joe Shea edits The American Reporter, the first original Internet daily newspaper. He has been a reporter for 45 years. Write him at firstname.lastname@example.org.