Jann Wenner, publisher of Rolling Stone, claimed it wasn’t a “meaningful thing” to allow El Chapo to have veto power over the article, the New York Times reported. “In this case, it was a small thing to do in exchange for what we got,” Wenner told the Times.
Wenner also said that Rolling Stone didn’t want to help authorities capture El Chapo, saying, “I was worried that I did not want to provide the details that would be responsible for his capture” and that the magazine “would have done everything that a traditional journalism operation would have done in terms of protecting sources.”
In an interview with CNN Money, Wenner stood by his decision to have Penn interview El Chapo and give El Chapo veto power. Wenner said it was a coincidence the story was ready for publication and released after El Chapo’s arrest.
He called the story approval a “small price to pay” and said Rolling Stone planned to “deal with it” if El Chapo asked for changes.
For his part, Sean Penn told the Associated Press he has “nothin’ to hide.”
The Society of Professional Journalists’ ethics chair Andrew M. Seaman criticized Rolling Stone‘s decision to give El Chapo approval of the article.
In a blogpost this weekend, Seaman 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.”
iMediaEthics agrees with SPJ that it did not matter if El Chapo requested changes or not. “The whole story was at continual risk by the prospect that El Chapo could freely reject the article if it did not please him,” iMediaEthics’ editor-in-chief Rhonda Roland Shearer said. “The agreement for approval by a source influenced just as sure as the Sword of Damocles over Penn’s and Rolling Stone owner’s heads.”
Given the significance of the interview, Penn’s involvement, and the resources used, the Washington Post‘s Erik Wemple realistically argued that Rolling Stone “was never going to not publish this piece.”
The SPJ’s Seaman called it “the latest misstep” for Rolling Stone after the debacle surrounding last year’s story “A Rape on Campus.”
“After the fallout of that story, where Rolling Stone failed to contact key sources for rebuttal and with the magazine still facing multiple libel lawsuits, it’s discrediting that Rolling Stone doubles down with its disregard of no-brainer ethical standards still fresh in many readers’ minds,” iMediaEthics’ Shearer said.
New York Times executive editor Dean Baquet and standards editor Philip B. Corbett both told public editor Margaret Sullivan that the Times would not have given El Chapo the approval Rolling Stone granted. Baquet said he “would have walked away from the interview” under those terms.