When Sean Penn appeared on 60 Minutes Sunday night to discuss his controversial Rolling Stone interview with Mexican drug lord El Chapo, he defended himself as a journalist. He described the state of American journalism as “an incredible hypocrisy” but called his article a “failure” for not inspiring a discussion about the war on drugs.
Author Don Winslow also considers Penn’s article a failure, but for different reasons. Winslow has spent decades researching Mexican cartels, a level of knowledge which gives novels like The Cartel such depth. Winslow has been tweeting criticisms of Penn’s account from his prolific Twitter account since the story broke, but on Monday Deadline.com published an official repudiation.
“As someone who has researched and written about the Mexican cartels and the futile ‘war on drugs’ for coming on twenty years, I know how tough a subject it is,” Winslow writes. “Mind-bending, soul-warping, heartbreaking, it challenges your intellect, your beliefs, your faith in humanity and God. No journalist or writer who has ever tackled it has emerged quite the same – and all too many have not survived at all, but been tortured, mutilated and killed on the orders of such as Joaquin Guzman.”
Throughout his piece, Winslow refuses to refer to El Chapo by his colorful nickname (“he is not one of the Seven Dwarfs”) and doesn’t shy away from pointing out the numerous crimes the drug lord has committed, all of which go unmentioned by Penn.
“An entry-level journalist would have pushed Guzman on the many millions of dollars in bribes he has paid to co-opt police, judges and politicians, about his treaty with the sadistic and hideously violent Zetas when it was convenient to him,” Winslow writes. “I would like to have heard about the people on his payroll who dissolved their victims’ bodies in acid, about the decapitations and mutilations, about the blood soaked bodies displayed in public places as intimidation and propaganda.”
Penn says he wanted to demonstrate that El Chapo is a boogeyman who distracts from the institutional problems fueling the war on drugs, but Winslow argues this gives short shrift to the man himself, and to the journalistic profession Penn invokes.
“Penn’s story was not a failure because people failed to understand it, as he claimed on 60 Minutes,” Winslow writes. “It is a failure because he failed to understand who he was interviewing, the crimes his subject committed and the responsibility he had to ask real questions. Penn’s failure is further compounded by his 60 Minutes interview, which was as misguided and self-serving as the Rolling Stone article.”
Head over to Deadline.com to read Winslow’s full piece.