Sean Penn Pressed to Defend His Journalistic Style

Sean Penn
Sean Penn has added “experiential journalism” to his resume. His recent interview with Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman in Rolling Stone magazine, prior to the drug lord’s recapture in the early morning hours of Jan. 8, 2016, has brought out innuendo, speculation, and accusation from fellow journalists and those who think they are experts on the subject. Those in the profession have pressed Penn to defend his journalistic style.


Penn’s style was brought into question during Charlie Rose’s interview with him for CBS’ 60 Minutes, which aired on Jan. 18, 2016. Rose pressed him with questions about why he interviewed El Chapo and implied impropriety on the actor’s part. An article in Daily Mail suggested that Penn might have been working for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Others have written that his interview was illegal or overly disingenuous.

The tagline for the Rolling Stone article, “a secret visit with the most wanted man in the world,” did not help matters, in the least. It did, however, bring out the worst in other journalists. Feeding the frenzy of criticism are the tweets, such as the one from Daily Mail reader Tracy Jeffords, “The only thing I’d like to hear about Sean Penn is about him being arrested for aiding and abetting a fugitive…other than that #yawn.”

Frankly, it is annoying to see a journalist treated as a criminal. Every writer has his or her own style and purpose for choosing the subject matter they explore. Penn’s journalistic working history has raised hackles in the past. According to People Magazine, he has selected subjects, such as Hurricane Katrina, Haiti, Iraq, Venezuela, Cuba, and Iran. “[He] was the first foreigner to interview Raul Castro and the only person to get to El Chapo.”

Journalistic Styles

PennAn interesting point was made regarding the uproar over the reaction of fellow journalists and those who claim to be authorities in the field. An unnamed source told People that had the Rolling Stone article by-line read, “Hunter S. Thompson,” there would be no criticism of the interview and subsequent article. The source further stated, “Instead, in the spirit of Gonzo journalism, it would be lauded as courageous and unprecedented.”

Definitions of Gonzo journalism use Thompson in the explanation of the concept. Random House Dictionary states, the term is an “Americanism.” Thompson’s editor is said to have coined the phrase to describe his writing style. It is journalism written without objectivity. It often includes the writer as part of the story and uses the first-person narrative.

Apparently, when a journalist steps outside the generally accepted rules, he is an anomaly, and thereby, becomes a target for criticism. Others feel compelled to press him to defend his experiential journalistic style.

60 Minutes Interview Highlights

During the CBS 60 Minutes interview, Penn was questioned as to why he wanted to interview El Chapo, a notorious drug lord. Rose asked, “What’s the point?” in an accusatory tone.

To which Penn responded, “It occurs to me that often we want to simplify the problem (in this case, the war on drugs), so I do what I call experiential journalism. I don’t have to be the one that reports on the alleged murders or the amount of narcotics brought in. [Instead], I go and I spend time in the company of another human being… I make an observation and try to balance that with the focus, I believe, we tend to put too much emphasis on.”

On the defensive, Penn also found fault with people in the industry that do not agree he is one of them. He said, “I want to see the license that says that they’re a journalist.” He does have a point. To become a reporter is not the same as being a Certified Public Accountant (CPA). Journalists, for the most part, tend to have a generally accepted practice of principles and they are not licensed.


As a journalist, it is embarrassing to see reporters take time out from real news to call out Penn’s journalistic practices. It seems being part of a nation that requires political correctness holds reporters to a different standard. Unfortunately, for Penn, he has been pressed to defend himself, his approach when interviewing subjects, and his journalistic style.

Opinion by Cathy Milne
Edited by Jeanette Smith

CBS 60 Minutes: Interview with Sean Penn
Rolling Stone: El Chapo Speaks
Daily Mail: ‘Is Sean Penn a CIA spy?’: Conspiracy theorists claim actor’s interview with El Chapo was an elaborate government plot to capture fugitive drug lord
People Magazine: El Chapo Wasn’t Sean Penn’s First Super-Villain Interview: All About His Controversial Reporting Career
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First Inset Image Courtesy of Thomas Hawk’s Flickr Page – Creative Commons License
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