El Chapo, Sean Penn and the Failed War on Drugs - Part 1

The recent Rolling Stones article "El Chapo Speaks", and video interview with the Mexican drug lord, El Chapo (Joaquín Archivaldo Guzmán Loera), with Sean Penn has caused much commotion in the press and on the Internet. Unfortunately, the buzz which Mr. Penn's article produced was not the response that the author had hope for -- as indicated in his 60 Minutes interview, when he states that his article had "failed."

However, in examining any kind of failure here, it should be noted that what "failed" was not Mr. Penn's article, or even his interview with El Chapo. What "failed," was the press's inability to seize the opportunity afforded by Mr. Penn's article to open a much needed discussion on the failed American "War on Drugs" -- as Mr. Penn has repeatedly stated.

While I believe the reaction of the press to Mr. Penn's article -- character assassinations, rather than exposure of the hypocrisy and fiasco that has been the "War on Drug" -- is a sad testament to the lack of integrity and freedom of the press in the USA. While I find the accusations launched at Mr. Penn unimportant in the discussion and dialogue that is needed surrounding the "War on Drugs", I recognize these accusations have "high-jacked" the issues Mr. Penn wished to raise -- and unfortunately, should be addressed before addressing the real issues at hand.

First, the accusation from Don Winslow (who does not possess a degree in journalism himself) that Mr. Penn is not a journalist and/or that his self-proclaimed "experiential journalism" is not true journalism, is completely baseless. Mr. Winslow's accusation shows a lack of proper research and knowledge regarding his subject matter. There are many well-known and reputable journalist, anchors, and other news people who do not have degrees in journalism -- Oprah Winfrey , Larry King, Ellen DeGeneres, Jimmy Kimmel, Joy Behar, Rosie O'Donnell, Brian Williams, Peter Jennings, Walter Cronkite and John Chancellor, Nina Totenberg Carl Bernstein, William Safire, Fareed Zakaria, Glenn Greenwald... the list goes on. Even Edward R. Murrow did not possess a degree in journalism. So it does not appear that a degree in journalism is a requirement to practice journalism. And, therefore the argumentation that "Penn is not a journalist because he does not possess a degree in journalism" (particularly in light of his extremely impressive "resume" in the film industry), would be comical if not for the very serious subject matter that Mr. Penn is attempting to expose, the failed "War on Drugs."

Then, the accusation that Mr. Penn is not a real journalist because he is a self-proclaimed "experiential" journalist, is ridiculous. While Mr. Winslow (and others) may not appreciate Mr. Penn's style of reporting, Mr. Penn's style is perfectly "legitimate," and one used by journalists around the world. As Robert Boyton, of the New New Journalism states:

In the thirty years since Tom Wolfe published his manifesto [1973], "The New Journalism," a group of writers has been quietly securing a place at the very center of contemporary American literature for reportorially based, narrative-driven long form nonfiction. These New New Journalists-Adrian LeBlanc, Michael Lewis, Lawrence Weschler, Eric Schlosser, Richard Preston, Alex Kotlowitz, Jon Krakauer, William Langewiesche, Lawrence Wright, William Finnegan, Ted Conover, Jonathan Harr, Susan Orlean, and others-represent the continued maturation of American literary journalism. They use the license to experiment with form earned by the New Journalists of the sixties to address the social and political concerns of 19th century writers such as Lincoln Steffens, Jacob Riis and Stephen Crane (an earlier generation of "New Journalists"), synthesizing the best of these two traditions. Rigorously reported, psychologically astute, sociologically sophisticated and politically aware, the New New Journalism may well be the most popular and influential development in the history of American literary nonfiction. The New New Journalism explores the methods and techniques these journalists have developed, and looks backward to understand their dual heritage―their debts to their predecessors from both the 1890s and the 1960s. ...

What this new breed represents is less a school of thought, or rule-defined movement, than a shorthand way of describing the reportorial sensibility behind an increasingly significant body of work.