January 11, 2016 Last Updated 8:06 am

David Bowie, dead at 69; Sean Penn interview has readers and editors talking about media’s role in informing the public

Morning Brief: Rolling Stone interview with El Chapo has many readers furious that any attention at all would be given to the notorious drug lord, but seek editors have to wonder why their readers would want to remain uninformed

The death of rock star David Bowie is particularly sad for me this morning. I was never a huge fan of the ’70s rock star, but the girls across the hall at the college dorm of a friend of mine were. Big fans. I was a big fan of those girls, so… there was a lot of Bowie being played in that dorm room.

Bowie-2-260Course, that was the pre-disco Bowie, lots of make-up, driving guitars, and rather large costume boots.

This has already been a bad month for losing music legends. Last week it was announced that Pierre Boulez had died at the age of 90. When the girls were not visit my friend’s dorm room, listening to Bowie, smoking illegal substances, I was back at my own dorm room likely listening to something more adventurous, like Boulez.

I’m sure those girls feel that Bowie’s passing is a big a loss as that of Boulez, and I can totally understand that.

Sean Penn’s interview with Joaquín Archivaldo Guzmán Loera, otherwise known as El Chapo, has been controversial, to say the least. As of this morning the article in Rolling Stone has already attracted over 2,000 comments, most of them negative.


Photo: Rolling Stone

But few are criticizing the article itself, which is admittedly choppy, but the very idea that Penn would have sought an interview with the Mexican drug lord at all.

“Penn is a traitor to this nation, hates America and should be in prison for enabling this vicious monster,” writes one indignant reader.

How odd. What is journalism all about if not to seek out interviews with the leading (or notorious) people of our time? How many interviews appeared with Osama bin Ladin both before and after 9/11? Are we supposed to live in a hole and purposely ignore those that effect our lives so deeply?

Ignoring the reaction of the reactionaries for a moment, it is interesting to see that the major newspapers around the world picked up the story in a hurry. I imagine that a number of editors are today wondering why it was an actor and a music magazine that pulled this interview off, and not one of their own reporters.

But it was the reaction from readers that may have also gotten their attention: most readers cannot understand why a newspaper (or magazine in this case) would think it appropriate to interview El Chapo – which I find a sad indictment of the state of literacy in America. If they think it wrong to interview such an important figure as El Chapo, then they really are not potential newspaper readers, are they? Instead, they most likely only want to read and hear what they already agree with.

The New York Times ran not one, but at least six stories that mention the interview, with several examining the reaction to the story. One of them has already had two headlines placed on it: The Ethics of Penn’s Interview With a Mexican Drug Lord and How Rolling Stone Magazine Handled a Get With Ramifications – probably reflecting the editor’s own changing views about the story.

For Rolling Stone, still recovering from its controversial University of Virginia rape story, Penn’s story garners the magazine more attention, though I think this time the judgement will be, in the long run, more positive.

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