Unless you live under a rock, you may have Googled "Is Sean Penn a journalist?" this weekend. The actor left many scratching their heads Saturday when he dropped an interview with notorious Mexican drug lord El Chapo in Rolling Stone, but this wasn't the Academy-Award winning actor's first foray into reporting. Since 2004, Penn has picked up a handful of bylines at major news publications, covering big-headline news stories and landing sit-downs with high-profile world leaders.
The actor has accrued bylines detailing visits to a conflict-torn Iraq and Iran during an election campaign for the San Francisco Chronicle, as well as from interviewing Cuba's Raul Castro and the late Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez for The Nation. In fact, rumors Penn would travel to Iraq for the second time in late 2003 to write for the San Francisco Chronicle on how life in the country had changed following the American invasion sent both tabloids like People and news networks like CNN abuzz with claims the actor was trading in the Hollywood life to be a foreign correspondent.
In a series of articles commissioned by Penn's friend, the Chronicle's then-editor Phil Bronstein, the actor-turned-journalist recounted visiting hospitals, witnessing U.S. military raids on apartment buildings, conversations with governing council members, and the difficulty he had getting out of Iraq in late 2003.
In describing his initial thoughts while being held at gunpoint at a checkpoint in Baghdad, Penn touched on the new extremes in his work life.
I am circled by six leather-jacketed Iraqis, their Kalashnikov rifles trained on me. Here is what comes to my mind: "Dear Phil Bronstein, please accept my formal resignation from journalism. My understanding is that Giorgio Armani is sending a new linen suit to my California home, and I would like to supply it a body as intact as possible, as the suit is tailored."
In 2005, the Chronicle again published a five-part series of articles from Penn, who had traveled to Iran for a five-day visit to speak with citizens and politicians in the lead-up to the country's election. Penn described street scenes and Friday morning prayers in Tehran, providing a glimpse into a nation then-largely unknown to the average American.
Penn traveled south in 2008 to talk human rights in a series of private meetings with then-Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez — who then arranged an interview between Penn and Raul Castro, the president of Cuba — for articles published in both The Nation and The Huffington Post. Castro, who was campaigning for the presidential seat at the time, told Penn he was cautiously open to a meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama and would even agree to meeting on neutral ground.
In an era where many journalists are fighting to be paid in more than exposure, Penn claimed he told El Chapo "when I do journalism, I take no payment" in his interview for Rolling Stone. Indeed, Penn isn't likely to need the extra paycheck, and the actor has been relatively upfront about how his journalism endeavors are fueled more by political activism and concern than by any itch to change careers. Penn told Reuters he was motivated to return to Iraq to see firsthand the effects of the American invasion before he spoke out against the U.S. government's foreign policy.
I know there are kids in Iraq just like my kids. I just need to see them before I speak to [the issues], before I confirm all of the things I feel we’ve been lied to about.
In his most recent stint as a journalist, Penn introduced his interview by stating he was motivated to seek out El Chapo "to explore what may be inconsistent with the portrayals our government and media brand upon their declared enemies." Despite however forthcoming Penn may be about his potential biases, it's important to remember his reporting is very much in the gonzo journalism style first popularized by Hunter S. Thompson.
To date, all of Penn's articles have been written from a personal point of view. Through vivid descriptions and storytelling the actor makes himself and his experience a significant part of the story, thereby making the news not El Chapo's involvement in the drug cartel but that Sean Penn was weirdly able to snag an exclusive interview with a famed Mexican drug lord.