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Sean Penn Faces Backlash Over 'Rolling Stone' Story On 'El Chapo'


The story of the recaptured drug kingpin Joaquin El Chapo Guzman would have had the world's attention no matter what, but the story became even more bizarre once it was revealed that Hollywood star Sean Penn conducted an interview with El Chapo in the months before Friday's arrest. We learned that after Penn wrote about the meeting for Rolling Stone. We're going to talk about the reaction to that piece with NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik. Hey, David.


SHAPIRO: Most journalists would love to get a scoop like the one that Rolling Stone got. Talk about what news organizations do to get interviews like this.

FOLKENFLIK: Well, you make appeals. You make approaches. You often use middlemen or middlewomen to try to foster a report, relations with the people you're going after. And people go after, you know - people are much taken by the fact that Penn interviewed a drug lord, a guy connected to killings and murders. But you know, major news organizations have interviewed Saddam Hussein, Bashir Assad, Osama bin Laden. People of interest are people of interest. In this case, the agreement that Rolling Stone made was extraordinary and, I think, wrong. It agreed to allow Joaquin Guzman, the real name of El Chapo, to review and demand changes in the article before publication. Rolling Stones says he chose not to do so. But what an abrogation, what a relinquishment of editorial control and authority.

SHAPIRO: There's a lot of criticism surrounding this piece, including people who say that Sean Penn should've turned in the drug lord. If you assume, for a moment, that Sean Penn is a journalist, which, you know, you can debate that assumption, what obligation does a journalist have to turn it in somebody like that once they get access to them?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, I've talked to folks who have had - have experience in federal law enforcement. In this country, they say he has no legal obligation to do so. The people on - engaged in journalism don't do that. Certainly Penn concealed his activities and his movements in attempt to elude detection. I will say that the attorney general of Mexico said that they were monitoring Guzman's contacts and his associates contacts and that what Penn did - his movements were essential to their ability to track him down. But that would have been inadvertent, not intentional.

SHAPIRO: Guzman is obviously a subject of great interest that people would want to write about. Do you think that in this case, Rolling Stone and Sean Penn are guilty of glamorizing Guzman and writing about him in a way that is off-limits, in a way?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, I think they've certainly, in this case, although Rolling Stone's capable of some terrific journalism - in this case, proved not up to the task of rendering the complexity, the deadliness of what Guzman does, the destructiveness, the toll in this country as well as in his own. And in exploring this with voices outside of Guzman's own point of view, as limited as it was, it was a pretty narrow interview itself, pretty unrevealing and pretty, I thought, self-indulgent on Sean Penn's part.

SHAPIRO: So if you balance the exclusive, on the one hand, with the headache that Rolling Stone is getting for it on the other hand, ultimately, do you think this is worth it for Rolling Stone?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, from a strictly cynical standpoint, yes, in two separate ways. First, we're all talking about it. It is defining, in many ways, a lot of the news coverage of the capture of El Chapo. And in addition, it's getting a ton of traffic for them and a lot of attention. In addition, I think this can't be underestimated. It is completely changing the conversation that we had for months after the retraction of a cover story about a gang rape at the University of Virginia that never occurred that led to several libel suits still outstanding against the magazine. And right now, we're talking about something a world away, completely different.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik. Thanks, David.

FOLKENFLIK: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Folkenflik was described by Geraldo Rivera of Fox News as "a really weak-kneed, backstabbing, sweaty-palmed reporter." Others have been kinder. The Columbia Journalism Review, for example, once gave him a "laurel" for reporting that immediately led the U.S. military to institute safety measures for journalists in Baghdad.