Words by Liz Coughlin
In the digital age, we’re bombarded with information at a rate that hardly gives us time to digest it all. Aside from the average 90 or so text messages that we receive throughout the day (according to a study conducted by the Pew Research Center in 2011) the world is quite literally at our fingertips the moment we pick up our phones. However convenient, there is a downside to all of this instant gratification: smartphones have turned us into lazy media consumers. We’re likely to get a lot of our news from social media because of its omnipresence in our lives. When a trustworthy friend shares an article on Facebook, the average person might skim over it and accept its contents as legitimate without checking other sources. As consumers, it’s tempting to simply trust the information presented to us. But I’m here to advise you to tread cautiously, in order to avoid being that guy still circulating the fake Donald Trump “quote” that claimed he was running as a Republican because they’re a dumb group of voters, like he’s not running because he’s a wealthy white male with nothing to lose. But I digress.
Amongst all of this journalistic “white noise,” one might come across a story like Sean Penn’s interview with Mexican drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman. This story’s success was due more to its appeal to the public’s morbid curiosity, and much less to Penn’s writing acumen. Granted, he is an actor, not a journalist, and not many actors would go out of their way to cover overarching issues like drug cartels in such depth. It’s an especially risky subject that even professionals might hesitate to cover, with 60 Mexican journalists having been killed in just the last decade. The kinds of stories that get journalists into trouble are the ones that hit cartels the hardest, exposing corruption at local levels by naming police officers who are helping the cartels carry out their business. There is a fine line for journalists covering the issue, because cartels often do the exact opposite and seek attention for these activities, waiting until the probability of news coverage is the highest to carry out murders that they want publicized. So it’s often hard to tell what cartels won’t like, and what stories are worth risking one’s life over. Considering Penn went straight to the person with the most influence over these activities, his vision may well have been a noble one. But however good his intentions might have been at the start, they weren’t apparent once the story was printed.
If Penn’s intention was to reveal wider themes like government corruption and the War on Drugs, he wouldn’t have placed so much emphasis on himself. A good journalist could have avoided first-person narration altogether and walked readers through the story without even making it known that he or she was present. Penn hides the story’s lack of quality behind pompous language and insignificant personal details, which might have been effective if they were more tasteful. They might have even mustered some sympathy; after all, there’s no denying Penn was placed in very trying circumstances. But they merely detract from the purpose of the story. Highlights include a description of Penn savoring his penis in his hand, fearing it might soon be chopped off, a very unnecessary detail considering he hadn’t moved further than the airstrip on which they’d just landed.
The bigger issue at hand, present throughout the piece, is Penn’s general lack of ethical tact. He practically praises El Chapo, a murderer, for all of his notoriety in the U.S. He presents the man as a hospitable chap, with a warm smile and an “undisputable charisma.” Apparently Penn’s fascination with El Chapo’s persona takes precedence over the lives of all the people the drug lord has killed and their families (though according to Penn, he’s no longer as bloodthirsty as he was back in his youth. Well, fantastic.) I don’t think Penn meant to defend El Chapo, but instead to give us his point of view on the events as they ensued. But his fixation on El Chapo leads me to believe he wanted less to inform than to impress, which stands out as unprofessional in a field that generally relies on the careful selection of facts for content. The interview itself lacks complete legitimacy because El Chapo had authority over the questions asked. He also read the interview before it was published, which means no matter what Penn’s takeaways may have been, the result would be skewed in El Chapo’s favor. Knowing all of the constraints that would factor into writing the piece, Penn might have consulted with Rolling Stone beforehand to set some expectations.
Compare this story with work done by journalists like Tom Wainwright, Britain editor for The Economist. A former correspondent to Mexico and many Central American countries, he performed tasks similar to those required of Penn for the El Chapo piece almost regularly. As a journalist and published author, Wainwright had some advantages, like all of his experience abroad to help guide him through dangerous places. But the difference in their levels of professionalism is extreme. One story that stands out as most similar to Penn’s was Wainwright’s interview with El Salvadoran cartel leader Carlos Mojica Lechuga, head of the 18th Street Gang, for his book called “Narconomics.” Wainwright set out to cover more important issues than just Lechuga himself. As an economist, his goal was to compare the similarities between the methods cartel leaders and big businesses like Walmart use to turn a profit, like the fact that they both monopsonize (have complete control over the purchase, and hence, the distribution of) specific products. In an interview conducted by Fresh Air’s Terry Gross in mid-February, Wainwright explained how cartels work, as well as the effect of cartels on communities, putting himself in circumstances equally as dangerous as Penn’s encounter with El Chapo. The difference is that Wainwright immersed himself in research, not surface details.
Because Lechuga is prison-bound, Wainwright didn’t have the luxury of conducting his interview where the subject would be the most at-ease, and certainly not in the subject’s own home. It was conducted in a prison cell, where Lechuga’s handcuffs were removed and guards shut the door behind them. Only after his book was completed did Wainwright express his fears, telling Gross, “I was kind of nervous about that,” letting the story speak for itself. What was important to Wainwright was the information he would gather, not the recognition. In his book and in his interview with Fresh Air, he was able to explain the most effective ways to solve the so-called War on Drugs in a way that was informative yet easy to understand: drug prevention is not as effective as drug treatment, because most users are only dealers so they have the means to buy more drugs. If you remove the addiction, there’s no need for them to sell, and there are fewer drugs on the market.
What we can gather from the contrast between the two writers is that we have choice, as consumers, over our sources of information, and that it’s clear some are better than others. This isn’t Rolling Stone’s first blunder. A story published in 2014 that has since been retracted claimed a woman named Jacqueline Coakley had been raped by members of a fraternity as part of a hazing ritual. But even the most reliable news sources err sometimes. NPR published a story in January about the effect of snow on emigrants in America by labeling their home countries (Kuwait, Brazil, and Ethiopia) “the global south,” an antiquated term synonymous with “third-world.” Most people would shrug this detail off, but as a news source with such a large readership, NPR had the choice to either perpetuate ableist language or to help eliminate it, and in this case, they didn’t set much of an example.
All of this evidence just goes to show the importance of thinking critically about what you read. Consider the author’s intentions and potential motivation. Read more of their work to decide whether or not they are reliable. Dare I say, stay woke.