Sean Penn's naive and dangerous 'El Chapo' interview

Story highlights

  • Raul A. Reyes: It was a mistake for Rolling Stone to send a celebrity rather than a journalist
  • Seasoned journalist could have asked drug lord Joaquin Guzman tough questions, he says
  • Reyes: Guzman able to get away with claiming he only uses violence in self-defense

Raul A. Reyes, an attorney and member of the USA Today board of contributors, writes frequently for CNN Opinion. Follow him on Twitter @RaulAReyes. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

(CNN)Everyone wants to be in showbiz.

News reports say that Joaquin Guzman Loera, the Mexican drug lord known as "El Chapo" (Shorty), was captured because he reached out to celebrities and producers as part of an effort to produce a movie about his life.
Now we know that Academy Award-winning actor Sean Penn and Mexican telenovela star Kate del Castillo traveled to Mexico for a secret interview with Guzman for Rolling Stone. The article is available now on RollingStone.com.
    While it has generated international attention, this interview raises ethical, legal and moral considerations. Penn and del Castillo put themselves and others at enormous risk in pursuing this exclusive with one of the most dangerous men on earth. All for a self-serving interview that reflects poorly on everyone involved, including Rolling Stone magazine.
    Penn asks Guzman questions without any kind of real follow-up to his answers; when Guzman says he's only killed in self-defense, Penn lets it go.
    According to The New York Times, Penn was able to meet with Guzman because the drug lord wanted to make a movie about his life. Their physical meeting necessitated a series of subterfuges, involving first a charter flight to Mexico and then a second flight with Guzman's associates aboard a small plane with radar-scrambling technology.
    In a scene straight out of a movie, Penn finally met Guzman in a remote jungle clearing. But Penn seems to have overlooked the reality that life is not a movie. He jeopardized his personal safety by taking on such a dangerous assignment. He could be held liable for concealing and harboring a fugitive. (The Mexican government has already launched an investigation into the circumstances of the interview.)
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    That Penn would knowingly assume such risks bespeaks at best naivete and at worst arrogance. Consider that Rolling Stone could have sent a seasoned journalist to interview Guzman; in that instance, the writer could have asserted his right as a member of the press to refuse to divulge information about the circumstances of the interview. Or that, with a real reporter, Rolling Stone could have argued that the public had a right to know the true story of Guzman's escape.
    Instead, Rolling Stone entrusted their reputation to Penn, who does not speak fluent Spanish and who describes Guzman as "this simple man from a simple place" who "does not initially strike me as the big bad wolf of lore."
    Left unsaid in Penn's puff piece is one huge assumption. Had he been placed in a life-threatening situation, he would not be left to suffer or die like an ordinary U.S. or Mexican civilian. He could likely count on the Hollywood community, the FBI, and high-level diplomats mobilizing and negotiating on his behalf to ensure his safety. He is a privileged American celebrity "playing" the role of a fearless journalist.
    Penn's partner in this misguided adventure was del Castillo, an actress best known for her starring role in "La Reina del Sur" ("The Queen of the South") in which she played the head of a drug cartel. In 2012, she shocked audiences with a social media posting in which she seemed to praise Guzman; in 2015, she starred as another drug kingpin in "Dueños de paraiso" ("Masters of Paradise").
    How sad that an actress of her stature and talent would glorify the ugly, deadly drug business with this escapade. It sends a bad message to her millions of fans -- that Guzman deserves to be seen as a kind of folk hero, rather than a coldblooded killer.
    Like Penn, del Castillo placed herself at enormous personal risk by venturing beyond the reach of law enforcement. And if she thinks this episode will somehow further her acting career, she is mistaken; this debacle could complicate her efforts to attract brand-name endorsements or contracts.
    Rolling Stone does not fare well in this tangled story, either. Penn's interview with Guzman was conducted in October, and Rolling Stone released it now to capitalize on the news of his arrest. In the meantime, apparently no one at the magazine thought it questionable to keep the details of this meeting secret while an international manhunt was on for Guzman.
    Not only did the magazine give the cartel leader a platform for his views, it also allowed him editorial control. Rolling Stone said the magazine had agreed to give Guzman approval over the story, but that he did not request changes.
    For Rolling Stone, whose 2014 "scoop" about a gang rape at the University in Virginia unraveled amid lawsuits and investigations, the Guzman story reveals another spectacular lack of editorial judgment. The problem was sending a celebrity to serve as a journalist as well as giving the subject power of approval.
    Sure, there can be real value to interviews with people in the news, including notorious figures, when they are conducted professionally and thoughtfully. That didn't really happen here. As he recounts in his story, Penn drinks tequila with Guzman, and at one point realizes he lacks even pen and paper.
    Penn explains his meeting with Guzman by writing, "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 cites the hypocrisy of the American government's stance on drugs and the public's appetite for drugs, which fuels the cartels. And Penn clearly enjoys the role of a provocateur, whether he is on patrol (with a gun) in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina or defending the late dictator Hugo Chavez of Venezuela. Yet how would it look if Penn and del Castillo were secretly meeting with the heads of ISIS?
    In any case, Penn's personal views do not justify consorting with a convicted drug trafficker and prison escapee. Penn's actions are an insult to the U.S. and Mexican authorities who have pursued Guzman as well as to the countless victims of drug violence. Still, in his article, Penn writes of Guzman's "warm smile" and "indisputable charisma." His courting of a monster is inexcusable and despicable.
    Penn's interview with Guzman is a sad example of journalism. Shame on Penn, del Castillo and Rolling Stone for irresponsibly promoting themselves -- and for glorifying a drug lord.