When Sean Penn revealed in Rolling Stone that he’d secretly met with Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzmán — deep in the jungle in October, while the drug kingpin was still a fugitive — the news came as a shock to many. But it wasn’t long before the Oscar-winning actor’s article drew criticism from observers — including Sen. Marco Rubio, who told ABC on Sunday, “I find it grotesque.”
Perhaps the most vocal of Sean Penn’s critics, though, were those people who are also most familiar with his article’s subject: the Mexican and Mexican-American journalists who regularly report on Guzmán.
In a tweet Sunday, Alfredo Corchado, the former Mexico bureau chief for the Dallas Morning News, came out strongly against the piece, saying that to describe Penn’s meeting with Guzmán as an interview “is an epic insult to journalists who died in the name of truth.”
Reached by NPR on Sunday night, Corchado says his reaction swung quickly upon reading the piece.
“My first reaction was, ‘Wow, this is fascinating,’ ” says Corchado, who is now at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism at Arizona State University. “Then you think about the scope of it, and you think about all of the Mexican journalists that have been killed.”
Corchado takes issue foremost with Penn’s agreement to submit the piece for the subject’s approval before publication (though Rolling Stone says Guzmán did not request changes). Submitting the article for approval, Corchado says, invalidates the piece as a work of journalism.
“It’s not really journalism. It’s business, it’s Hollywood,” Corchado says. “It’s more in the lines of what a public relations firm would do.”
And Corchado says that does a disservice to journalists covering the drug trade in Mexico — which can be a very dangerous place to work. Since 1992, 35 journalists have been killed in the course of conducting their work in Mexico, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. Still more have gone missing. Of those victims, the vast majority had been reporting on crime and corruption in the country.
Others put the toll even higher — including Mexico’s special prosecutor for crimes against journalists, who, in 2012, said that 67 journalists had been killed and 14 disappeared since 2006.
Of the 35 killings confirmed by the CPJ, more than 90 percent have not returned a murder conviction.
And for Corchado, those statistics are personal.
“I know people who have been killed, who have disappeared, have been threatened,” Corchado says. “I know colleagues who have been told to censor themselves.”