Hollywood—and, by proxy, Los Angeles—has a tenuous reputation. There are still those who cling to the notion that we’re all vain and superficial, or that we have no grasp on what’s going on in the world. And while most Angelenos don’t care much about other people’s misguided opinions, it would be nice not to add fuel to that reputation’s fire.
Instead, Sean Penn, actor, has decided to go on ahead and make it worse. A few weeks ago, Rolling Stone ran a navel-gazing, fart-spewing, abjectly tone-deaf profile of Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman written by Penn. The 10,000-word tome has been slammed by journalists in both Mexico and the United States, as Penn appeared not to ask Guzman a single difficult question, wrote in self-indulgent and poorly executed purple prose, spent 25 paragraphs self-aggrandizing, and then—along with Rolling Stone’s editors—let Guzman see a draft before publication.
That is a pretty egregious journalistic faux pas, but on top of it, Penn has also never acknowledged the unthinkable privilege he had in securing and conducting the interview. For any other journalist—any journalist at all!—traveling to a rural mountainside in Sinaloa would come with the risk of kidnapping, injury, or death. But because Penn is Penn, he faced none of those threats; he was escorted, in fact, by Guzman’s own son. That is because the PR nightmare that would ensue around the death of a world-famous Hollywood actor is one that even the most notorious of international criminals can’t afford.
After the RS article ran and the ensuing outrage went flying, Penn seemed, at first, to hear the cries of the people. On Sunday, the self-anointed “experiential journalist” sat down with Charlie Rose for an interview on 60 Minutes, presumably to clear the air. But rather than demonstrate any measure of contrition or self-awareness, Penn succeeded only in doubling down on his original stance.
First, the actor insisted that his trip had nothing to do with Guzman’s subsequent capture, even though Mexican authorities have called Penn’s visit “essential” to their ability to track Guzman down.
“As far as you know,” said Rose, “your visit had nothing to do with his recapture?”
“Here’s the things that we know,” Penn replied. “We know that the Mexican government has…been very humiliated by the original escape.”
Yet when Rose asked Penn if he was aware that both Mexican and U.S. authorities knew about his visit—meaning that Penn had the unspoken protection of both governments, as well as the cartel members who escorted him—Penn replied, “I assumed they knew about it.”
In a stunning display of delusion and paranoia, Penn then added that he believes the Mexican government is deliberately trying to refocus the Sinaloa cartel’s murderous attention on him.
“Do you believe that the Mexican government released this because they wanted to see you blamed and to put you at risk?” asked Rose.
“Yes,” said Penn.
“They wanted to encourage the cartel to put you in their crosshairs?”
All that being said, there’s one thing Penn knows for sure: His own perceived place in the world. Dozens of Mexican journalists are killed, threatened, and intimidated when they cover the cartels’ nefarious activities without the protection of federal government agencies—and the cartel itself—that Penn enjoyed. The actor, however, feels that he needn’t be involved in such day-to-day drudgery.
“I don’t have to be the one that reports on the alleged murders,” says Penn. “I go and I spend time in the company of another human being, which everyone is. And I make an observation.”
But let it be known: Sean Penn is still a journalist. “Journalists who say that I’m not a journalist,” he says, “I want to see the license that says that they’re a journalist.”
To which we in the journalism world say, that is great news. Because does that mean we’re all actors? We shall await our millions.