Why It’s Hard to Hate Sean Penn

Sean Penn Haiti
AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa

Sean Penn’s heart has always been in the right place. The whereabouts of his brain, however, are worth questioning.

Of all the reactions one could have to the actor’s controversial decision to interview Mexican drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman without alerting the authorities, surprise shouldn’t be one of them. This is a guy who rowed through the flood waters of Hurricane Katrina to rescue survivors, and raced to Haiti to join relief efforts there in the wake of damaging earthquakes.

This modern-day Zelig isn’t content to just sit on the sidelines while the world plays out in front of him. There’s something to respect about that.

But somewhere in the recesses of his mind, the wires of conscience and ego crossed, sparking a colossal short circuit deep in the Mexican jungle.

Of course, Penn doesn’t see it that way. Give him some credit for at least trying to explain the rationale for his decision to meet with El Chapo in his lengthy Rolling Stone piece.

“As an American citizen, I’m drawn to explore what may be inconsistent with the portrayals our government and media brand upon their declared enemies,” he explains at the outset of what reads like a rather convoluted rationalization for what will probably seem to everyone but Penn as raging narcissism.

There’s no doubt he believes his intentions here to be honorable. But how he can justify interviewing a fugitive is a logic as elusive as Guzman himself.

Penn’s failure to explain himself adequately invites an easy putdown: “What do you expect from someone who isn’t a ‘real’ journalist?” But perhaps it’s best to pass up an opportunity to defend the sanctity of this holy profession against a celebrity dilettante. Penn’s impulse to report is actually admirable notwithstanding his misguided moral logic. Much as his work suffers greatly here from a lack of expertise, there’s a reason no license exists to practice journalism; it’s a tool that should be at the disposal of anyone prompted to speak out a truth they believe deserves the light of day.

But what does this impulse have to do with a less-than-revelatory chat with a murderous druglord? This is where the wicket gets stickier. Most people in Penn’s shoes would probably feel more compelled to point out Guzman’s coordinates to the authorities than ask him questions about what he dreams about at night.

But there’s precedent for Penn’s approach. Back in 1989, the legendary “60 Minutes” correspondent Mike Wallace drew flak for a media-ethics discussion that aired on PBS in which he was asked a hypothetical question: If in the midst of reporting on a war he learned the location of a fictional enemy about to besiege an American troop outpost, would he divulge this information to his countrymen in order to save lives?

While anchor Peter Jennings replied he would, Wallace was steadfast in his insistence that he would stay silent, which sparked outrage from critics who charged him with treasonous thinking.

“Don’t you have a higher duty as an American citizen to do all you can to save the lives of soldiers rather than this journalistic ethic of reporting fact?” Wallace was asked by the show’s host.

“No, you don’t have higher duty … you’re a reporter,” he replied.

The importance of bearing witness to history at all costs is probably something that figured into Penn’s thinking as well. But the problem with even Wallace’s application of the principle is it is really is more of an ideal to strive for than a practical reality by which to live. Love him or hate him, putting the ideal above everyday concerns is pretty much what Sean Penn has always been about.

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  1. DJ says:

    Lousy article….I would have loved to see some of your opinions elaborated here as opposed to just the idea that there is a precedent for this interview. “Sean Penn’s heart has always been in the right place. The whereabouts of his brain, however, are worth questioning.” Say more… “But somewhere in the recesses of his mind, the wires of conscience and ego crossed, sparking a colossal short circuit deep in the Mexican jungle.” Why do you see it that way? In my opinion, this piece was way to condensed to add anything to this discussion.

  2. No, it’s not hard to hate Sean Penn at all, especially when you see how racist he raised his thug son (thank God for video). It’s easy to see how he and Madonna got along so well seeing how she couldn’t wait to start feasting on David Bowie’s still warm body.

  3. Neth says:

    Also: of course you can’t hate a celebrity that makes sure he has his pic taken while carrying heavy supplies on a disasters zone. Psst….

  4. Neth says:

    Variety offering a mouth piece for a celebrity PR damage control. Ok, great credibility check for an industry site.

  5. tony says:

    Okay so el chapo is a bad guy. Tell me something I don’t know. The fact is that we can talk all we want as Americans, but the gangsters in Wall Street have caused more damage and killed more people than el chapo and all the drug dealers in the world. Yet not ONE of them went to jail when they caused the collapse of the world economy in 2008. And guess what? the media will never talk about that.

  6. BillUSA says:

    While its laudable that a celeb would help those in need, its just for the publicity. There are exceptions where a celeb sticks around to see things through, but even then they’re doing it for publicity. In the end, I judge celebs based upon what I see and hear, then determining how it all balances out. Penn is a minus.

    I was fed up with celebs who think they have the right to do as they please because they have the money to do so a long time ago. They think they have the answers we all need to not only hear, but adhere to while contradicting themselves along the way.

    Understandably, their dumb-as-a-stump followers give them the confidence to flex their money-muscles for the world to see, but our society has grown so fundamentally selfish and stupid that it is too much to hope for common sense to re-emerge.

    Sean Penn is an America-hating traitor who should be deported and not allowed entry back to the very soil he benefits from. I thought Charlie Sheen was the biggest fool until Sean Penn essentially painted a target on his own back. He had better hope “El Chapo” has an ounce of forgiveness in him.

  7. Kezia says:

    Meh. He doesn’t impact my life, I impact his. His conscience will lead his way – it’s not up to me to set standards for him. Yep – he has an ego, which we all do to varying degrees. He’s done some good and the world can always use some good.

  8. sanman$ says:

    Sean Penn should try working for the New York City Dept. of Sanitation. A real job. Oh sorry, he’d fail the drug test because of his cocaine addiction. Another spoiled movie star.

  9. Stan the Man says:

    I believe Mike Wallace answered the way a journalist should answer, however- I believe he wasn’t speaking the truth. I believe he would have given up the location of the enemy and would not have wanted anyone to know.

  10. A Reader Says says:

    That’s one of the funniest headlines I’ve EV-ER read! Thanks for making my day!

  11. Pau says:

    What people don´t understand is, if you speak, you may be dead. In Mexico, we all know that. Never the less, people in Sinaloa (mostly) loves Chapo (Kinda Robin Hood thing) and will never betray him.

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