Sean Penn made headlines on Jan. 9 when Rolling Stone published an interview the actor had done with infamous drug lord Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán. The publication of the interview coincided with El Chapo’s recapture by the Mexican government (after a famous escape in July), and many people have questioned Penn’s motives for the interview. On Sunday, Penn appeared on 60 Minutes to finally break his silence about the story in a conversation with Charlie Rose.
Penn described his story as “experiential journalism,” designed to highlight the failures of the war on drugs.
“I think the policy of the war on drugs, which so deeply affects all of our lives, seems not to change,” Penn said. “And it occurs to me that often, because we want to simplify the problem, and we want to look at a black hat and put our resources into focusing on the bad guy and I understand that. I absolutely understand justice and the rule of law. And 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 that are brought in. I go and I spend time in the company of another human being, which everyone is. And I make an observation and try to parallel that.”
Despite his claim to journalism, Penn was roundly criticized by other journalists for not bringing up El Chapo’s many alleged crimes, writing a favorable piece on the drug lord, and even giving his subject final story approval.
“I’m really sad about the state of journalism in our country. It has been an incredible hypocrisy and an incredible lesson in just how much they don’t know and how disserved we are,” Penn said. “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.”
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According to Penn, his method of “experiential journalism” – which some have compared to Hunter S. Thompson’s style of self-immersion “gonzo journalism” – required him only to report on things he was involved with first-hand.
“I was not present to report on the things people would like to see reported on,” Penn said. “I was not present at murders. I was not present to see narcotics. I was not present to that. What I was present for I wrote. I wrote that to use it as a pillar for an article about the policy of the war on drugs.”
Despite the author’s intentions, the national conversation about Penn’s Rolling Stone story has not involved the policies of the war on drugs, but rather the question of how this star-studded meeting came about. As a result, Penn said he considers his article a failure.
“You’re really saying, what I really regret is not anything that did. I regret that people misunderstood what I did,” Rose said.
“That’s what I’m saying, yeah,” Penn said.