By Lena Williams, Guild-CWA :: Sean Penn, the Academy-award winning actor, claims he’s a journalist based on a freelance piece he wrote for Rolling Stone Magazine last month on Joaquin Guzman Loera, the Mexican drug lord known as El Chapo.
Penn calls himself an “experiential” journalist, someone he describes as spending time “in the company of another human being,” who makes “an observation and tries to parallel that, try to balance that with the focus that we, that I believe, we tend to put too much emphasis on.”
Based on that ambiguous definition,everyone who spends time observing another person would be a journalist.
Penn wants us to believe that he, however, is a legitimate journalist because he wrote a piece that was published in a mainstream magazine. But one published article does not a journalist make. If that were the case, people whose letters to the editor are published would be journalists. People who submit op-ed pieces, including the president of the United States and foreign dignitaries, would be considered journalists.
Today, millions of ordinary people with smart phones, cameras and Internet access are engaging in citizen journalism, an activist form of newsgathering and reporting outside mainstream media institutions. As a result, journalists are no longer considered a special breed of professionals, schooled and trained in the basic principles of reporting, writing and broadcasting the news.
Journalists don’t carry licenses. A college degree is not a prerequisite to become a journalist. Most bloggers have no background in journalism, but still identify as journalists.
It can feel like a slap in the face to those of us with journalism degrees and years in the trenches covering breaking news. Why should someone posting online be considered a journalist if he or she has never faced the checks and balances of an editor and doesn’t understand – or perhaps even care about — the principles that guide our work?
But the courts say – and, despite our own misgivings, many of us who consider ourselves “real” journalists agree – that bloggers and the public have the same First Amendment protections as we do.
Which brings me back to Sean Penn.
If imitation is the best form of flattery, journalists at home and abroad might be honored that Penn, a respected actor, activist and humanitarian, wants to be one of us. Might be, that is, if we didn’t feel he was abusing our professional title and sullying our reputations.
Guzman, one of the world’s most wanted fugitives, escaped a Mexican jail last July and was still on the run when Penn interviewed him in an undisclosed location. He was recaptured Jan. 8 in a deadly gun battle with security forces in Sinaloa, Mexico.
Mexican officials said the actor broke their country’s laws by meeting with a wanted criminal. They want to question Penn about the interview and how it was arranged.
Journalist or not, Penn doesn’t have to speak with Mexican officials. The interview and the subsequent Rolling Stone article, published in the United States, are protected by the First Amendment.
Even Mexico’s Constitution states that “no law or authority can previously censor the press.” It protects the expression of an idea from “any judicial or administrative investigation, unless it offends good morals, infringes the rights of others, incites to crime or disturbs the public order.”
Still, Mexico’s attorney general is investigating whether Penn and the actress Kate del Castillo, who arranged the interview with Guzman, violated the law of encubrimiento, or concealment, which pertains to meeting with a known fugitive without notifying authorities. Experts say it’s doubtful Mexico officials have a valid legal argument.
If Penn is guilty of anything, it is breaking a cardinal principle of journalism by agreeing to submit his story to Guzman for approval before publication. A bona fide journalist knows better.
Penn acknowledged that he agreed to send the article to Guzman, saying, “if he said no, then that was no harm, no foul to any reader” and the article would never have been printed.
That’s beside the point. The fact remains that Penn gave a source the right to kill a story.
“Allowing any source control over a story’s content is inexcusable,” Andrew Seaman wrote on SPJ’s ethics committee blog. “The practice of pre-approval discredits the entire story – whether the subject requests change or not. The writer, who in this case is an actor and activist, may not write the story in a more favorable light and omit unflattering facts, in an attempt to not be rejected.”
Some civil libertarians questioned the moral implications of Penn’s interview. They argue that the actor put himself and others at risk by arranging a clandestine interview with a fugitive pursued by an armed force. And he gave an uncensored bully platform to a man who, by his own admission, has killed some 3,000 people and shipped many tons of cocaine, methamphetamine, marijuana and heroin to North America and Europe.
Penn argues that the article was his own commentary on America’s never-ending war against drugs, as he told Charlie Rose in a 60 Minutes interview.
That’s not clear in the story itself, which borders on a puff piece. Guzman told Penn he began selling and distributing drugs to support his impoverished family, and attributed the violence in the drug trade to “envy” and “some people” with problems.
In the 60 Minutes piece, Penn bemoans the state of journalism in America and implies that an outsider like himself, who can be more flamboyant with his words, was the right man for the job because he answers to no one but himself.
“I’m really sad about the state of journalism in our country,” Penn said. “It has been an incredible hypocrisy and an incredible lesson in just how much they don’t know and how disserved we are. Journalists who want to say that I’m not a journalist. Well, I want to see the license that says that they’re a journalist.”
No, Sean Penn, we aren’t licensed. But we are principled.
Penn calls himself a journalist while decrying our profession. What I see is an opportunist who wanted an exclusive – one I won’t be the least bit surprised to see turned into a Hollywood movie.