Some journalists, in the course of their professional lives, will come upon people who, before, during, or after an interview, will ask if they can read the forthcoming piece, once it is written, in order to approve its contents. Most often, they are simply concerned with making sure that they don’t sound like idiots. Understandable! Still, this is a frustrating thing to be asked, because it makes one wonder where these people have gotten this idea—that this is a thing that is done. Now, we know that Jann Wenner, founder and publisher of Rolling Stone magazine, is at least partly to blame, as, in response to criticism over allowing El Chapo final approval over Sean Penn’s 10,000-word article on him, he told the New York Times, “I don’t think it was a meaningful thing in the first place. We have let people in the past approve their quotes in interviews.”
The piece begins with a disclosure that reads, in part, “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.”
Media critics and journalism ethicists—to say nothing of Mexican journalists—have come down pretty hard on the magazine for this. In a blog post, Andrew Seaman, chair of the Society of Professional Journalists’ Ethics Committee, wrote:
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.
Still, Wenner was dismissive. “In this case, it was a small thing to do in exchange for what we got,” he told the Times. El Chapo, Wenner said, didn’t speak English, and didn’t seem interested in editing Penn’s turgid prose. (Neither, it would seem, was Rolling Stone.)
Steve Coll, the dean of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, was circumspect. “It’s hard to judge what Rolling Stone was thinking since apparently the veto wasn’t exercised, freeing the magazine of any dilemma,” he said.
Alternatively, maybe the fact that El Chapo—who we can probably assume has someone in his employ who does, in fact, speak English—didn’t exercise his veto is as damning an indictment of such an arrangement (or, more specifically, the product of such an arrangement) as if he had and the magazine acquiesced. A puff piece is still a puff piece even if it’s disguised with a dilettante’s interminable onanism.
Then again, maybe El Chapo did start reading it, only to stop, calculating (correctly) that it didn’t matter what Penn wrote because everyone was just going to stop after three excruciating paragraphs anyway.