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.