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Rolling Stone, Penn Interviewing El Chapo a Non-Issue, But Agreeing to Forfeit Editorial Control Is

PicMonkey Collage - El ChapoThe Sean Penn interview with the recaptured drug kingpin El Chapo (Joaquin Guzman) is a controversial one here in the bubble these days. Primary question to any journalist (or in this case, actor): If an interview could be arranged for you with one of the most wanted, famous and notorious criminals in the world, would you take it?

The easy answer is yes, simply due to precedent. By precedent, we mean multiple interviews conducted with Osama Bin Laden, who was on the FBI’s more wanted list going back to the 90’s. CNN’s Peter Arnett secured one in 1997, for example, which included this ominous exchange:

Arnett: “What are your future plans?”
Bin Laden: “You’ll see them and hear about them in the media, God willing”.

The Independent, ABC News, and Time also secured time with the al-Qaeda leader. Time‘s interview was the most interesting one in terms of editorial control, as after the magazine captured footage of Bin Laden walking with a stick, it was promptly erased by his bodyguards.

Post-9/11 meant Bin Laden going into hiding, resulting in just one interview until his death at the hands of Navy Seals in Pakistan almost five years ago. Al Jazeera landed that exclusive but decided not to air it. In a fascinating development after that decision was made, CNN obtained the footage through an affiliate agreement it had with the Qatar-based network and aired the interview instead. But while some may ask if any journalist has a responsibility to help authorities to bring the fugitives they’re interviewing to justice, the simple answer is no. That’s not part of the job description and there is the precedent outlined earlier. Per Rachel Stockman’s column, Senior Editor of LawNewz.com (an Abrams Media publication):

While this article will open Penn up to an array of questions by both U.S. and Mexican authorities, it is doubtful that Penn or his crew will be charged criminally, unless some more information emerges about their involvement in hiding El Chapo from authorities. So far, I’ve seen none. The article simply indicates Penn traveled to a secret place for an interview. I would expect Penn, a savvy Hollywood actor and filmmaker, consulted with attorneys before crossing any legal line.

Here’s my real point: Yes, Rolling Stone and Penn conducting an interview with El Chapo is fine and will do quite well on the sales and web traffic front. And yes, any journalist or news organization who says he/she/it would have turned down the opportunity simply isn’t being truthful. But here’s where the line may have been drawn by some reporters when adding this caveat to the scenario: “Yes Mr. Penn, you can interview El Chapo … but he gets all editorial control afterward.” In other words, Chapo decides in the end what makes him look good while deeming what may be unfavorable. Instead of Penn, Rolling Stone might as well sent a stenographer into the jungle for the interview instead.

That’s what happened here, as Penn allowed his subject to review and approve everything they talked about afterward. Rolling Stone––a publication that can’t exactly be taken at its word after the UVA debacle that resulted in no firings or much of anything resembling accountability carried out by its founder and publisher, Jann Wenner––states nothing was altered after El Chapo reviewed the interview. So should they be believed?

Here’s where some doubt may come into play: When asked to comment by CNN’s Brian Stelter on the story, a Rolling Stone spokeswoman said no editors were available, nor would she comment on source approval conditions around the interview. Note: Silence only raises suspicion in these situations, particularly when Rolling Stone, given its recent dubious history and credibility issues, is involved.

The guy who once played the legendary Jeff Spicoli lands an interview with the leader of the world’s biggest narcotics cartel and most wanted fugitives on the planet. It’s a deal any reporter or actor playing a reporter would take. The interview undoubtedly will be the magazine’s most-read since the fiction at UVA it ran while failing the most basic tenants of journalism over one year ago.

But Rolling Stone tripped over itself again the moment it agreed to relinquish editorial control. Subjects of interviews also can’t be editors, they can’t play judge and jury on content.

This may do well for Rolling Stone‘s bottom line, but whatever credibility it had left (See: almost none) has gone up in smoke.

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Follow Joe Concha on Twitter @JoeConchaTV

This is an opinion piece. The views expressed in this article are those of just the author.

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