What did we learn from Sean Penn's 11,000 word 'El Chapo' interview? How not to write

The actor appears as nonchalant in his attitude to journalism as he was to aid work in Haiti

Memphis Barker
Tuesday 12 January 2016 18:16
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Sean Penn shakes hands with Mexican drug lord Joaquin "Chapo" Guzman in Mexico, in the photograph shot for the Rolling Stone magazine. Sean Penn has been mocked for Rolling Stone magazine article detailing his meeting with drug lord El Chapo
Sean Penn shakes hands with Mexican drug lord Joaquin "Chapo" Guzman in Mexico, in the photograph shot for the Rolling Stone magazine. Sean Penn has been mocked for Rolling Stone magazine article detailing his meeting with drug lord El Chapo

The legendary individual who loomed before my eyes as I read Sean Penn’s article in Rolling Stone was not the largest drugs baron in Mexico, but the letters editor of The Independent. Perhaps the only thing they truly have in common is a beard: Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman sells narcotics all across the Western world, from a mountain base in the Sinoloa Region. Guy Keleny sits a few desks away from me, and is the office oracle for matters to do with grammar, prose and general knowledge. One shoots those who fail to live up to his standards in the back of the head, the other deconstructs their writing style in a weekly column for The Independent. There are days when I don’t know which fate is preferable.

It is more or less guaranteed that Penn’s 11,000 word piece of gonzo reportage would feature in “Errors and Omissions”, were it to have run in the Indy. It would probably feature quite heavily. Push me to guess, in fact, and I might say that Mr Keleny could file two month’s-worth of copy off the first four paragraphs alone. Here I should admit to my portion of sour grapes: Rolling Stone got the scoop, and the number of international crime lords I’ve farted in front of in the last six months still stands, if I check my diary, at zero.

To clarify, that is a reference to Penn’s piece. The star’s commitment to the truth leads him to admit that, as Mr Guzman leaves his company, “I expel a minor traveller’s flatulence (sorry)”. Penn is kind enough to apologise, and El Chapo – also showing his natural “chivalry” – “pretends not to notice”. In fact, everyone quickly escapes the “subtle brume”, except, that is, the readers of Penn’s article. This is the trouble with gonzo journalism, you don’t always know what to leave out.

Here is a line from the introduction: “At 55 years old, I’ve never learned to use a laptop. Do they still make laptops? No f*****g idea!” Here is one that follows soon after: “His bald head demands your attention to his twinkling eyes.” And here is one from the middle of the saga: “I have offered myself to experiences beyond my control in numerous countries of war… [and so have a] deepening situational awareness (though not a perfect science) of available cautions within the design in chaos.”

If it were Guy here, you would get a pithy remark or two about chaos. He would also probably have something to say about Mr Penn’s claim that “when I do journalism, I take no payment”.

The offence that seems to have most frustrated journalists is Rolling Stone’s decision to grant El Chapo, who was caught after Mexican police tracked Penn to his location, an opportunity to approve the article before it was published. So, something saying that “Guzman had his gang chop up the body of a 26-year-old and sew the young man’s face to a soccer ball” (a fact that Penn left out) could feasibly have become “this Robin Hood-figure is known for his love of sport”. Copy approval breaks one of journalism’s taboos, but for a story this big I (and I wager The Independent) would have given it, too.

What grates more is the nonchalant cack-handedness with which Penn’s piece is put together (there is one long passage in which he just quotes Scarface). I suppose the irritation is a marginally less important replica of what development workers must have felt when Penn showed up in Haiti in 2010, thinking he knew how to “do aid” as well as he can “do journalism”, and created a false alarm about the spread of disease that twisted funding priorities for weeks. Just as there is a craft to acting, and to aid work, there is one to journalism. For proof of the latter, I recommend Penn pass his next piece to Keleny – not El Chapo – for approval.

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