Amidst controversy, Penn’s ‘El Chapo’ interview unfairly criticized

Matt Poe

It is human nature to want to be the first: First place, first in line and first to answer a question. This certainly applies to journalism, where the first person to gain access to a major story is key. Which brings us to actor Sean Penn. In the early stages of 2016, he has broken the biggest story of the year so far. He found El Chapo before any government, including our own, did. A remarkable and bizarre feat. But instead of admiration, he’s receiving condemnation. 

One of the world’s most-wanted drug lord and the Pablo Escobar of our generation, Joaquin ‘El Chapo’ Guzman, was captured on Jan. 8 by Mexican military forces after a raid on his compound. Barring another prison escape, the Mexican and U.S. governments should be applauded for their efforts in finally capturing him.

Yet, most of the conversation and attention surrounding arguably the largest raid on a fugitive since Osama Bin Laden isn’t on El Chapo himself. Rather, Oscar-winning actor Penn is taking the heat for his secret meeting and interview with Chapo back in the fall of 2015, which was published in Rolling Stone just a day after Chapo’s arrest.

Penn’s claims for meeting El Chapo center around a desire to understand more about the infestation and drug problem plaguing America, a problem I don’t need to explain because chances are we all know someone who has experienced drug addiction firsthand. Whether he had a hidden agenda, as some have speculated, is unknown.  

It helped that popular Mexican actress Kate del Castillo, whom El Chapo is reportedly smitten with, aided Penn in his search. El Chapo has been accused of horrific murders and acts while running his czar-like empire. He’s a man who deserves decades of prison time rather than being chatted up by a pair of actors.

However, the criticism and condemnation aimed at Penn is misguided and largely unfair.

Make no mistake, Penn is not an easy man to morally defend. He’s admittedly been prone to violent outbursts and even served jail time for one incident with assaulting a photographer. His image is far from clean-cut. Many people dismissed his encounter and interview with El Chapo as a ploy to garner attention for himself. Most people’s verdicts on Penn were out long before he produced this controversial article.

Penn finally broke his silence this past Sunday in an interview on 60 Minutes with the ever-accusatory Charlie Rose, who claimed Penn was naïve to think his meeting alone could change the war on drugs or simply convince El Chapo to see the side of the buyers and victims of the drugs he floods into the United States. Was he naïve in thinking so? Of course he was. But if a more popular actor like Leonardo DiCaprio published this story, I’d bet a week’s pay the reception would be quite different.   

Penn is obviously not a journalist in the traditional sense, but his willingness to risk life and limb for access to a coveted story is the foundation of journalism. He has presented a story for readers to make their own judgments. The idea that citizen journalism should still thrive in a time when many have since pronounced it dead, gone the way of the dinosaur, is one we need not forget. But many of us, media and public alike, have forgotten this idea that was seemingly swept away in favor of bias and scrutiny. 

Matt Poe is a columnist for The Kent Stater. Contact him at [email protected].