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Steinberg: Fear and Loathing and Sean Penn

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A few days before Sean Penn’s interview with drug lord Joaquín Guzmán Loera, better known as El Chapo, hit the Internet, I was talking with my younger son about gonzo journalism.

He had asked if “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” is worth reading, and I said yes, it is: very funny, assuming you can get past all the drinking and drug use. Hunter S. Thompson’s personality and style was so strong people tended to overlook the fact that he was a drug addict and alcoholic.

Of course gonzo journalism is dated, a relic of the days when writers were the oracles, the gatekeepers. A little injecting yourself into a story can go a long way. While it can work when the subject matter is inconsequential, like the motorcycle race and district attorney’s convention at the heart of “Fear and Loathing,” when you have a truly important topic, gonzo journalism reveals its flaws. Nobody cares that your luggage got lost on the way to interview Vladimir Putin. I had just read “The Fight” by Norman Mailer, who goes to Zaire for the 1974 Muhammad Ali/George Foreman “Rumble in the Jungle.” Mailer’s ego blocks out the sun; he refers to himself in third person:

Before the drive, they stopped, however, at Kin’s Casino, and there each man lost a little at Black Jack. That was about the way Norman wanted it. He was feeling empty — the hour in the Press Room of the Memling had been no good for n’golo. To lose therefore, was a confirmation of his views on the relation of vital force to gambling. Feeling low in luck, he would just as soon squander this bad luck at the Casino…

Notice anyone missing? Muhammad Ali perhaps? Mailer has complete access to the most important athlete in the 20th century, and continually squanders it noodling about himself, his digestion, his moods.

OPINION

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The spirit of Norman Mailer is alive in Sean Penn, which he’d probably take as a compliment. Sawing through his 10,000-word profile of El Chapo in Rolling Stone, it’s shocking how much of the story is about getting the story and not its purported subject.

Here’s the beginning of the second paragraph:

Espinoza and I have traveled many roads together, but none as unpredictable as the one we are now approaching. Espinoza is the owl who flies among falcons. Whether he’s standing in the midst of a slum, a jungle or a battlefield, his idiosyncratic elegance, mischievous smile and self-effacing charm have a way of defusing threat. His bald head demands your attention to his twinkling eyes. He’s a man fascinated and engaged. We whisper to each other in code. Finally a respite from the cyber technology that’s been sizzling my brain and soul. We sit within quietude of fortified walls that are old New York hotel construction, when walls were walls, and telephones were usable without a Ph.D. We quietly make our plans…

Bored yet? Espinoza is a guy helping Penn set up the interview.

Like Mailer, Penn is fascinated with his own digestion. He mentions a fart, discourses at length about taking a pee, yet shakes El Chapo’s hand without a moment’s reflection or hesitation. This is vanity publishing, not journalism. The is not Penn’s fault, movie stars are supposed to be vain and shallow. But this is Rolling Stone’s second serious journalistic lapse in two years, which in 2014 indicted a fraternity at the University of Virginia with a story about a jarring gang rape that basic journalistic practices would have rejected as unsubstantiated. Perhaps in a media landscape where attention is paramount, it hardly matters whether you get your pageviews with something that’s being praised or something that’s reviled.

I should mention that I wrote for Rolling Stone in the mid-1990s, including a cover story on drug policy. But I like to think this is not sour grapes. To be honest, disappointment over its early Valentine to a murderer directly responsible for uncounted deaths is a reflection of former high regard. How could they have published Penn’s treacly praise for “this simple man from a simple place” who has the misfortune to suffer from a “dumb show of demonization” from hypocritical American officials? Where are the bags of severed heads?

The interview itself offers nothing. Generic platitudes that Penn is somehow proud to have gathered. “Everything I say to everyone must be true,” he writes, a sentence certain to make alert readers gag. Whatever the truth of Guzman may be, Rolling Stone fired 10,000 shots and missed it, almost entirely.

“A humble, rural Mexican,” Penn concludes. Norman would be proud.

Tweets by @NeilSteinberg

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