The actor’s impression of what journalists do is as fraught with potential disaster as the actual situations he puts himself in.
It is easy to dismiss Sean Penn as an egomaniac, a cagey self-promoter, a Luddite, a little bit delusional, a perverter of the truth and a naive mouthpiece for himself.
He’s also still got a great head of hair.
But the question is whether we should take him and his actions as a journalist seriously. The answer lies somewhere in how seriously he takes his sudden self-anointed entry into the Fourth Estate.
60 Minutes, CBS’s long-running/long-form news magazine show, has slunk from its Peabody award-winning heyday of exposing friendly fire incidents in the Gulf and revealing CIA involvement in running drugs…not to mention this Eminem interview—to becoming the marketing arm for that toothy guy who got a loan from his investment bank-running daddy to start GoPro.
This week the show had a quarter hour to kill and they rolled Charlie Rose out to “interview” Sean Penn. Interview is in quotes because usually in interviews, and Rose knows this better than anyone, the interviewer asks a question and the interviewee answers that question.
“Congressman, did you find her attractive?”
“Yes. Yes I did.”
“Did that lead to an affair?”
“Yes. Yes it did.”
Interviewing Sean Penn is like taking a date to a steakhouse and listening on while she asks the server about vegan options. But more on that in a moment.
The subject of the 60 Minutes interview was Penn’s 10k-word curation of his last 3,000 Snapchats in Rolling Stone with drug kingpin and mass murderer Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman Loera.
Penn wrangled a date with El Chapo—that inadvertently led to the cartel boss’s recapture last week—mostly because the pair is Eskimo brothers over the same Telemundo star, Kate Del Castillo. Castillo’s upcoming Netflix series is still on track in spite of this latest skirmish, so don’t worry there. Her name is also now tops when you type “Kate” into Google. No cartel-related publicity is bad publicity!
The results of the interview notwithstanding, the piece itself is one part email to an ex you don’t dare send in the light of day and one part 4 a.m. journaling whilst coming down from a mushroom high and looking for any place that can give you pizza.
It featured such nuggets from Penn as:
At 55 years old, I’ve never learned to use a laptop. Do they still make laptops? No fucking idea!
But I’m in my rhythm. Everything I say to everyone must be true. As true as it is compartmentalized.
I understood that whatever else might be said of him, it was clear to me he was not a tourist in our big world.
And this, the pièce de résistance, filling El Chapo’s nostrils with his El Gaso:
I expel a minor traveler’s flatulence (sorry), and with it, I experience the same chivalry he’d offered when putting Kate to bed, as he pretends not to notice.
Rose did not press Penn about the actor calling himself an “Experiential Journalist”—which basically is what everyone who’s ever posted something on Facebook is. “Waterslide was super crowded today; glad we had season passes” = experiential journalism.
In fact, Penn, who wrote at novellas length about “bureaucratic agendas” of, you know, nation states, did not dare a line of questioning about how El Chapo’s Sinaloa Cartel is directly responsible for the deaths of thousands of people including journalists, police officers, informants, Mexican government officials, federal agents and entire families of innocents. And that’s not even taking into account, you know, the end users of his product(s).
Penn’s justification for shorting the actual Q&A part of his Q&A is that he doesn’t need to ask the questions that people want him to ask: Questions like, “Are you a ruthless killer?” “How do you justify taking part in the industry you’re in where lives are ruined at every step: from creation to consumption?” Or “Is that really a LaserDisc player over there? Why do all cartel heads still have LaserDiscs? Are LaserDiscs the new vinyl?” because, you know, those people who want him to ask the questions any journalist would ask—aren’t him.
“I don’t have to be the one that reports on the alleged murders or the amount of narcotics that are brought in,” Penn told Rose. “I go and I spend time in the company of another human being, which everyone is.”
…So after completely not doing his job as a “journalist” (and, arguably, as a human being), Penn went on to tell Rose how disappointed he is in journalists and journalism today. Fair enough, especially considering how many journalists he’s turned off with his work since Milk.
He also said he is among their ranks because a journalist isn’t credentialed—like actors are, I guess? “Journalists who want to say that I’m not a journalist. Well, I want to see the license that says that they’re a journalist.”
I’m sure any working journalist would be willing to produce for Mr. Penn a pay stub as a license/badge of honor from being in the profession for which he shows no more than a passing interest.
Were he to have the same respect for the craft of journalism as the craft of acting, he would: Learn how to write, not in the first person. Get to know the inverted pyramid and the economy of words. At some point, have an AP Stylebook thrown at his head from across the room at 3 a.m. on deadline. Be willing to make less than five dollars an hour poring over a 579-page planning commission meeting packet and supplemental materials just to see whether or not there’s evidence the new golf course is encroaching on the California red-legged frog’s habitat. Be OK with being lied to—constantly. By everyone: city and county clerks, developers, teachers, students, union reps and even dentists. Dentists have their hands in your mouths and everything else in the town they live in. That’s a fact.
Also, for the pittance he would earn that doesn’t cover a car payment or daycare or the gas bill on the same month…or even lunch, ever—Penn would be expected as a card-carrying journalist to not only learn what a laptop is but to use it to: Write 5-12 actual accurate, sourced and unbiased stories a week using proper grammar and syntax and a style that doesn’t include him as the narrator/main character. Shoot and edit compelling video companion pieces. Compile and curate and present all research materials as supplements to the pieces that bear his byline in a way that is both transparent and compelling. Master social media in a voice that speaks to the masses in a both interesting and funny (mostly funny) and never condescending tone. Grow a much, much thicker skin. Be willing to have his work—all work—questioned and criticized and crucified by all the commenting trolls in the world telling him he sucks at his job or doesn’t know how to do his job—even though they have no idea exactly what goes into the job.
Possess enough humility to say I have no idea what I’m talking about—but I’ll find out more.
Because actually being journalist is not like playing a someone who’s exceptionally slow. You can’t just rock in place and stammer while shopping for shoes. You have to present hard facts in a digestible and entertaining manner or you get threatened, or you get physically harmed, or you get sued, or you get fired.
Scratch that. All those things can happen even when (especially when) you do your job right.
…And as a reward, they make you a copy editor.
In spite of all the personal sacrifice; in spite of the dearth of income opportunities; in spite of having to work in a business that refused to change early on to seek higher ground over the layers and layers of aggregated shit it now has become intrinsically tied to, someone should tell Sean Penn it’s still a viable profession to the
unlicensed journalists out there who believe in their work. Because they know somewhere in there is the truth.
And the truth is worth it.
But finding it starts with asking the right questions.