What is wrong with Sean Penn's writing - and does it matter?

By Roland Hughes
BBC News

  • Published
Actor Sean Penn poses in the press room after winning the Best Actor Oscar award for "MILK" at the 81st Annual Academy Awards (OSCARS) held at Kodak Theatre on February 22, 2009Image source, AFP/Getty Images
Image caption,
Sean Penn can act - the Oscar is proof of that - but can he write?

It was the scoop of the year - an interview with fugitive Mexican gang boss Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman by the Hollywood actor Sean Penn.

The interview in Rolling Stone magazine was not the first time that Penn has seen his work published but his piece, which emerged two days after Guzman's capture in Mexico, was greeted with plenty of scorn.

The fact Penn granted El Chapo copy approval, the colourful prose, and the actor's unexpected references to his genitalia and flatulence left many readers baffled - while others accused the media of sour grapes.

But what do the experts think?

Paul Fletcher, national president, US Society of Professional Journalists

A journalist may have to accept with a source whether material could be used, whether stuff is said on the record or off, and you may read back quotes - but giving full-blown pre-approval for a story is definitely not best practice.

He is up-front, saying "this is how it was conducted" but the fact they put a disclaimer on it doesn't serve to provide any credibility to the story.

Penn talks about how he contacted Rolling Stone editor Jann Wenner and was working at the highest level. But this is the second time in the past 18 months where Rolling Stone has chucked one of the basic rules of journalism out of the window.

As for Penn's writing, you take it for what it is. Is it journalism? There are caveats to it, so readers beware.

Roy Greenslade, professor of journalism, City University, London

Image source, AFP/Getty Images

In the writing of the piece, they would have had to have been as sensitive as they could possibly have been in order not to offend those people who have suffered - people have died because of this man [El Chapo]. You want to show due scepticism when he tries to come up with lame excuses.

It was a mixture of purple prose and psychobabble, really. I would advise Penn to come and be a student. I would say he has a lot to teach me about acting, but I could teach him a lot about journalism.

I would say he needed a really good sub-editor who could sit with him rather than do it all afterwards. Rolling Stone writers do tend to write to great length - perhaps I should also ask that the Rolling Stone editorial staff come in for training too?

Manny Paraschos, professor of journalism at Emerson College, Boston, and co-publisher of Media Ethics magazine

How can we trust somebody who is not trained and doesn't have the same principles as a trained, legitimate journalist to handle a difficult assignment? He has a point of view, one I have no problem with, but you can't go with a point of view to an interview like this.

I don't mind an actor talking to these people, but when you have him representing a credible, major news organisation like Rolling Stone in an interview with such a sensitive subject, you should have second thoughts.

Rolling Stone had to decide what was more important - getting the story at any cost, or getting it done by someone who knows how to do it. I am not sure this was the right decision.

Also, if they had not caught the guy, the law in the US could have caught up with them. There are two precedents here in the US for that - we don't have complete immunity when it comes to the courts enquiring about the whereabouts of a criminal. It's good news for them this guy was caught.

Who has no problem with Penn?

Image source, AFP/Getty Images
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One editor sums it up: "Sean Penn has a particular style"

Some of the critics were accused of professional jealousy but plenty of writers have come out in defence of the piece too.

Jack Shafer, writing for Politico, acknowledged Penn's "loopy, self-parodying literary style" but said pre-approval should never be ruled out "especially if the subject were a notorious fugitive on the run".

Writing for the website of the Poynter media studies institute, Kelly McBride forgives Penn, saying "it's common for a writer's ambitions to outpace his talents". His editors at Rolling Stone get a hard time, though - she identifies six key points missing from the piece.

Rolling Stone's Jann Wenner said in an interview by the New York Times that the pre-approval was not "a meaningful thing in the first place" as Mr Guzman had no interest in editing the piece - and does not speak English. "In this case, it was a small thing to do in exchange for what we got," Mr Wenner said.

One of the article's editors, Jason Fine, was asked about Penn's writing style by the same newspaper. "It's a piece by Sean Penn," he said. "Sean Penn has a particular style and point of view, and I'm happy with it."