Rolling Stone Gathers No Accolades

Rolling Stone ChapoA magazine that staked the reputation of countless people on one person’s account just a year ago allowed a suspected murderer and drug lord control over an article.


While Sean Penn’s name appears on an article published tonight on Rolling Stone’s website, an accompanying note makes it clear Joaquín Archivaldo Guzmán Loera – known as El Chapo – controlled its content.

Guzmán was recaptured Friday in Mexico after escaping from one of the country’s most secure prisons last year.

The Rolling Stone story cautions that “an understanding was brokered with the subject that this piece would be submitted for the subject’s approval before publication. The subject did not ask for any changes.”

Allowing any source control over a story’s content is inexcusable. The practice of pre-approval discredits the entire story – whether the subject requests changes or not. The writer, who in this case is an actor and activist, may write the story in a more favorable light and omit unflattering facts in an attempt to not to be rejected.

Forfeiting its editorial control to Guzman is the latest misstep in the lauded magazine’s modern history. Last Spring, Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism chastised Rolling Stone in a report for publishing a severely flawed article about campus rape that largely relied on the account of one person. The magazine responded to the report by doing nothing.

Earlier this week, a rejection letter from Rolling Stone’s Hunter S. Thompson circulated around the Internet. In his words, Rolling Stone, “what kind of lame, half-mad bullshit are you trying to sneak over on us?” We expect better. Get it together.


Andrew M. Seaman is chair of the ethics committee of the Society of Professional Journalists.

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  • The whole situation seemed surreal. A movie star gaining access to and interviewing a hunted drug lord the authorities couldn’t even find. The movie star not tipping the authorities off to begin with. The movie star, not a journalist, writing the story. Details in the story leading the FBI being able to find and rearrest the drug lord. Wondering if Sean Penn should now be watching his back. Not to mention the questions raised by this article re: J ethics. What a world. It seems like a sequel to the movie, “Wag The
    Dog.”

  • Steve Weinstein

    A journalist is anyone who interviews a subject and writes a news feature based on it. Ergo, Sean Penn is a journalist — at least until there are licensing bureaus to rule on who qualifies, like beauticians or radiologists. And I am glad that will not be happening.

  • jeffschult

    Nonsense. And a smug cheap shot. And it wouldn’t have killed you to add that HST is “late” and to maybe think up some of your own words rather than take his out of context.

    It was an *interview*. If Joaquín Guzmán Loera had written the piece himself and mailed it in, any news organization would have taken it and reported it and published a transcript. (After confirming the source.) It was news. It had nothing to do with RS’s sins of the past, either.

  • John Willkie

    I agree entirely with your first sentence, Mr. Weinstein. A journalist is someone who commits acts of journalism. But, was this a “news feature?” Answering a few simple questions might help you think more clearly. Did this “item” establish Sean Penn’s ability to tell a minimally balanced story? In your life, have you ever before this week heard of an item (let alone one of 10,000 words) where the subject was granted (by the publisher and writer) a veto over any word in the article, have you ever heard of such an article being called “journalism?”

    You are by omission giving weight to the bad notion that journalists should be licensed. As for me, I saw the item, saw the disclaimer and went no further, because it was marketing and public relations. Note: we now know that Sean Penn decided it would be too difficult to do a movie on this subject and instead decided to write a PR piece that Rolling Stone, a la Ms. Erdely, would publish.

    #NoSeanPenndejo

  • Idi_Amen

    Aw come on. Sour grapes. Any journalist, any publication would have jumped at the opportunity had it come their way, approval condition attached or not. RS had the option of not publishing had Guzman Loera made any changes they did not like. The ethics in question also pale in comparison to the tons of crap passing as journalism on social media these days.

  • Sylv Taylor

    Even if it’s sour grapes, the point is valid.

  • Jeff Bowles

    “Allowing any source control over a story’s content is inexcusable.”

    Nope. Misrepresentation is always bad, in every way, and if there were edit/review offered to the subject and undisclosed to the reader, it would be awful.

    But a disclosure that tells you that it had this approval. Certainly it impugns the integrity of the content, but lets the reader decide what sort of piece they’re reading.

  • Jennifer Stewart

    The article in Rolling Stone struck me as a 2nd rate headline-grabber masquerading as important journalism. Penn’s disclaimer, that he just presented what he saw without judgment, leaving the reader to form his own conclusions, was fatuous. He didn’t do that at all.

    He did articulate everything that’s anti-social, criminal and repulsive about Guzman et al and followed that up with the same about the market for drugs. An unbiased assessment of everybody’s responsibility would have been excellent because it isn’t a simple issue but this wasn’t that. Penn pretty much shoved all responsibility onto the shoulders of the users and the destination countries’ inability/reluctance to deal head on with the problem.

    That’s tantamount to saying a rapist isn’t guilty because society doesn’t protect women effectively and because women let themselves be raped. The reality is that predators seek out the vulnerable and the unprotected.

    Which is what Guzman does with his global drug manufacture and sales industry. Penn should have made that point but he didn’t. Worse, his questions virtually solicited answers that could—and did—paint this sociopath as a simple, even kind-hearted family man who doesn’t mean any harm to anybody.

    A good journalist with real dedication to exposing truth would have asked far more penetrating questions. Why didn’t Penn do that? He’s very articulate and an outspoken activist who clearly does understand the role and accountability of the predator. He’s usually not scared of shoving truth in people’s faces. I’m not surprised that he didn’t blatantly tell the truth here. I am surprised that he [and Rolling Stone] settled for pretending to do so and expect us not to notice.

    The idea that the world’s most powerful drug lord is simple-minded is ludicrous and the notion that he wouldn’t control every word of an article about himself when he was on the run is equally so. If he didn’t edit his answers it was because he didn’t have to.

    I compare this variety of ‘exposing truth’ to that of the journalists fighting and exposing Michael Schroeder and Sheldon Adelson’s attempts (some successful; some fortunately not—see Steve Majerus-Collins’ Facebook page for that ongoing story) to pervert journalistic integrity. That’s real journalism. This is just a headline grabber with barely any substance to merit the huge attention it’s receiving.

  • rg

    Why haven’t we been hearing from you over the very same kind of collusion between all the establishment media whores and the establishment political whores who have been gutting the constitution all these recent years…where’s all your outrage for the truly bad actors in this world?

  • rg

    Mr. Seaman doth protest too much.

  • tomwest

    “if there were edit/review offered to the subject and undisclosed to the reader, it would be awful”.
    Really? So, you write a story about me. I see it before hand, and point out it contains some factual errors. You agree, fix the errors, and never mention this in the article. How does that impugn anything?

  • Jeff Bowles

    Checking veracity of quotes is sort of standard; allowing rewriting or copy-editing is something you’d disclose.

  • So how does this condemnation of Rolling Stone dovetail with SPJ previously arguing that PPR is okay? http://www.spj.org/ecs6.asp

    “It used to be that a reporter would absolutely NEVER let a source check out a story before it appeared. But there has been growing acceptance of the idea that it’s more important to be accurate than to be independent.”

    As a journalist, I don’t favor PPR. I am merely pointing out that SPJ seems to think PPR is okay for the Washington Post but not Rolling Stone. And the more important issue here is the threat of government or law enforcement agencies using the critique of Penn and RS to ‘investigate’ them for doing the interview. That’s what should be condemned.

  • tomwest

    “We must solumnly decalre that the subject of this piece pointed out his birthday was 1/2/1970, not 2/1/1970. This fulfils our ethical obligations”.
    … I think not, somehow.

    You seem to be conflating “reviewing” and “rewriting”. There is generally no harm in letting a subject review a piece about them, and have a chance to comment – even (especially!) if the article alleges something particularly bad. That doesn’t mean the writer/editor is obliged to rewrite anything.

  • alinla55

    A question for Andrew Seaman: How do we know RS gave pre-approval to the subject?

    (Hint: They had the integrity to disclose it. This enables the reader to make his or her OWN decision.)

  • alinla55

    I get the part about political whores…assuming you are talking about elected officials who have taken an oath to preserve protect and defend the constitution but….

    How exactly do “media whore” go about “gutting the constitution?’

    Outrage is useful, but don’t let it trump your common sense. (pun intended).

  • alinla55

    As for me, I saw the item, saw the disclaimer and went no further, because it was marketing and public relations.

    TRANSLATION: I am a highly bias, intellectual light weight who makes decisions based on perceptions. I have not need for facts or context.

  • rg

    How exactly? Why has there been no investigation into how the Twin Towers and building seven fell at freefall speed – or even fell at all? (the only skyscraper fires to ever result in collapse) Why have we not heard a cry of foul over all the information Snowden uncovered? Fourth Amendment? Why has there been no uproar over the ‘ethics’ of the collapse of Wall Street? Why has there been no cry of foul over all the Iraqi citizens who died as a result of a misguided ‘surge’? Why has there been no outrage over the Bush administrations mendacious selling of ‘wmd’? Where has the good ethics professor been through all this? Where has the media been? Business as usual. An actor is usurping journalist territory and the pack begins to howl. General McChrystal is laughing at the ghost of Michael Hastings, having a good hee-haw over Rolling Stone’s struggles while the good journalists swill Pappy Van Winkle and dream of bigger houses, fast cars, faster women and fat paychecks…exactly.

  • alinla55

    What you fail to understand (and certainly do not address) is that journalists are under no obligation to even acknowledge the existence of the U.S. Constitution.

    But cheer-up your outrage, as ridiculous and irrational as it is, is a manifestation of freedom.

  • rg

    Freedom? Basically, we’re free to not break any laws. Public demonstrations are shut down as soon as they appear. Are you free to be a communist? Are you free to smoke marijuana? Many years ago people were burned alive for disagreeing with church doctrine. Things are better now, burning at the stake has taken a backseat to mass incarceration. We are free to be jailed for non-violent drug use. Free to eat ourselves into disease overburdening the medical system. Free to surf all the porn on the internet but imprisoned if we look behind the NSA curtains. Free to watch all the sports we can stay awake for but don’t ask where all the money went for the military or the war. Free to go bankrupt for getting sick and going to the hospital. American exceptionalism right? Greatest country in the world…that ain’t saying much.

  • The Truth Hurts

    With the daily ethics violations committed by people who were actually trained to be journalists, it does seem strange that all of a sudden members of the media want to hash out what’s acceptable in reporting the news or conducting interviews.

  • AndrewMSeaman

    Hi Tom! Like I said on Twitter, allowing sources to review quotes or parts of a story is different than allowing the source to decide whether those quotes or the whole story will be printed.

    For example, a journalist who writes about health or science may want to bounce wording or a paraphrased description off a source for accuracy. Or, a journalist may say at the end of a conversation that he/she wants to confirm a few quotes. In both cases, the journalist retains editorial control, but is also doing his/her job to make sure in the information is accurate.

    Writing a story that will then be handed to the source to decide whether it will ultimately be printed is a different matter.

    While I’m not a fan of the Washington Post’s practice, I think it’s unfair to say its equivalent to Rolling Stone’s handling of the Guzman profile.

    Also, SPJ actively works on the implementation of a federal shield law, which could be used to protect Penn and Rolling Stone. However, I have not heard of any legal movement to question Penn or Rolling Stone.

  • Jeff Bowles

    Really, what I’m doing is reacting to the poo-bah from the Committee who is shaming Rolling Stone/Penn for not being ethical enough. I think they’re being foolish — that disclosure is enough for me to say that they’re overreacting.

  • rg

    Your jibes of “ridiculous and irrational” are typical of the whorish media, the insider pov, those infected with ambition who would sell themselves to anyone who promised more, better, bigger, stronger. You’re a climber rationalizing every step you take regardless of who or what you’re treading on, ignoring the costs of all your ambition, your desire. You don’t care about the innocent Iraqi’s maimed and killed…for what? You point to only a few thousand US soldiers killed during the Iraqi ‘war’ while ignoring the tens of thousands of soldiers suffering disabling trauma returning home broken to a country who pays no attention to much more than the big game. Isn’t it every persons natural inclination to be ambitious? At what cost? Hubris? Your levity, your wit, your vacuous lack of worldly experience adds to the imbecilic direction our country is leading the world. We have been sold on technology as a tool that will improve humanity at large. So far, only the nth percent is reaping the benefits. The workingman is getting ass-fucked. Oh yeah, you should know that puns are the lowest form of humor.

  • rg

    Cheer up? Why don’t we just emblazon the headline “Might Is Right” across the front pages of all the papers in this country? Of the world? Shock and awe the world into submission and create a massive filter to scan the world for dissent? That would be untoward. Let’s just take the world as the world and go along to get along. The alternative is marginalization, being called ridiculous and irrational. This country was founded on slavery and genocide. Why should anyone expect a more rational approach.

  • Michael Moore

    ANYONE else would’ve done the exact same thing to get an exclusive from El Chapo. Anyone who says otherwise is a fucking liar. And considering all the off the record, side deals, efforts to control that are already considered acceptable practice in press today, there is literally NO ONE who can cast stones at Rolling Stone on this story. Much like how Milli Vanilli only got the main furor from a hypocritical music business (well into lip-syncing, double tracking, replacing vocals and so on) who protested too much, when the general public couldn’t care less who actually sang the damn songs.
    Also, the Washington Post and many various other media outlets regularly did deals like RS did with Jackie in the UVA case. Obviously, they didn’t make the jump to blind faith that RS, Sabrina Rubin Erdely and Will Dana did and let the subject completely control everything, but they made similar deals to not give full names and only give the allegd victim’s side of the story in the very first article, which would be the lead-in to follow up stories later, with more interviews down the pike. Sadly, RS didn’t plan like that, which was a huge mistake, and was indeed a massive failure in journalism. But it’s not just RS that needs to change. The Washington Post needs to change. The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, FOX “News”, MSNBC, CNN, CBS, ABC, NBC, and all of them need to change. And they can’t attack Rolling Stone for the very same sins they themselves commit.
    (P.S. I’m NOT the director)

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