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Showing posts with label Rolling Stone. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Rolling Stone. Show all posts

Friday, January 15, 2016

Naivety and the Devil: Sean Penn and the El Chapo Story


“Always do what is right. It will gratify half of mankind and astound the other.” 
Mark Twain 

I was really mad when I read that Rolling Stone had agreed to publish an article of Sean Penn’s interview with Joaquín Archivaldo Guzmán or El Chapo, the notorious Sinaloa cartel leader, one day after his recapture by Mexican marines.

At this point, I had not read the article but was incensed by the simple fact that Mr. Penn and Rolling Stone thought it was perfectly okay to give a mass murderer, a man directly responsible for at least 100,000 murders (not including those related to the consumption of drugs), a global platform where he could freely express himself and likely further his own celebrity.

I was angry before I found out that not only did Rolling Stone provide a global platform to this murderous psychopath, but they also gave him editorial control. The magazine agreed to let El Chapo, a convicted drug dealer and murder, edit or make changes to the story before they published it.

Rolling Stone claims that El Chapo never made any changes but there is a fundamental problem with agreeing to this stipulation in the first place, and good reasons why no respectable media outlet ever agrees to it. This practice creates an unconscious but inherent bias in the mind of the interviewer/storyteller because they are concerned that if the subject feels like they are portrayed in a negative light or in an unflattering way, they will reject the piece.

Reading the article, it feels like Sean Penn actually harbours some admiration for this monster; and Mr. Penn seems naive enough to believe that El Chapo is a victim of circumstance and poverty. I encourage you to read it for yourself but below are some of the things Penn says about El Chapo:

It's paradoxical because today's Mexico has, in effect, two presidents.” “It was this president of Mexico who had agreed to see us.”

“…El Chapo is a businessman first, and only resorts to violence when he deems it advantageous to himself or his business interests.”

“This simple man from a simple place, surrounded by the simple affections of his sons to their father, and his toward them, does not initially strike me as the big bad wolf of lore.”

“…conjuring the vision of a wide-eyed schoolboy unsure of his teacher's summons.”

Later in the article Mr. Penn poses a series of questions that sound like they come from a 10 year old child conducting a homework assignment, to find out more about his father. Here are some excerpts (questions in bold followed by El Chapo’s response): 

Do you consider yourself a violent person? No, sir. 
Are you prone to violence, or do you use it as a last resort? Look, all I do is defend myself, nothing more. But do I start trouble? Never. 
What is your opinion about who is to blame here, those who sell drugs, or the people who use drugs and create a demand for them? What is the relationship between production, sale and consumption? If there was no consumption, there would be no sales. It is true that consumption, day after day, becomes bigger and bigger. So it sells and sells. 
The two times you escaped, it is worth mentioning, there was no violence. With me, it did not come to that. In other situations, what's been seen, things occur differently, but here, we did not use any violence.

I have no issue with interviewing men or women whom we deem evil, as long as there is some purpose or value to society in doing it. But it must never be done to allow them to aggrandise or as a pedestal to gain sympathy and further their lore. Frankly, I did not have any problem with Mr. Penn talking with Hugo Chavez or the Castro brothers; whether you like them or not, they are the elected leaders of their respective countries. While we might disagree with their worldview and governing styles, I do not see them as evil, even if our government chooses to vilify them. This is the justification Mr. Penn seems to give us for this interview. But in this case I simply do not agree because it is not the same thing.

Also, there is nothing wrong in telling the story of a drug lord, like Narcos (the Netflix series about Pablo Escobar), but it must be done through our eyes, not through the voice and eyes of the criminal. The Narcos creators have gone to great lengths to be factual but also to never glorify Pablo or the blood soaked world he created. They have been careful not to demean the bravery of the people who stood up to him or insult the memories of all the people whose lives he destroyed. It is very clear to anyone watching that Pablo Escobar is not the hero or the victim but the monster that he was.

El Chapo’s motives are personal financial gain and absolute power through fear and unchecked bloodlust. El Chapo does not simply kill rival cartel members or people involved the drug trade; he has mercilessly wiped out the families of politicians, policemen, journalists and all those who dared to oppose him.

Unlike prison guards in America who got greedy and took a bribe to help some prisoner escape, the choice for the Mexican prison guard is either to take El Chapo’s money, or to watch your entire family being murdered in front of your eyes. Not much of a choice.

In the article El Chapo tries to paint himself as a simple and poor farm boy, one who was driven into the drug trade because the Mexican economy offered him no other life choices. By the same yardstick, if Mr. Penn had interviewed Adolf Hitler, right before the fall of Berlin, he too might have talked about his troubled and poor childhood. How the death of four of his five siblings at a very young age deeply affected him. Hitler might have discussed wanting to join the priesthood or say how his father tried to force him to join the customs bureau, when all he wanted was to be was an artist. He too might have convinced Mr. Penn that it was the world and circumstances that conspired to push him down a path that was not of his own choosing and making.

We humans have the ability to paint a sympathetic picture of even the devil (and that is a good thing), but this is precisely why we must not with people like Hitler and El Chapo. Most times I believe it is worth reserving judgement about a person, or at the very least hearing their side of their story and justifications for their actions, but there are a few times when the matter is black and white. There is no moral ambivalence with Hitler, nor is there any justification for his actions. People like El Chapo must never be given the opportunity to gain our sympathy to try and somehow justify their madness and cold blooded murder

Sometimes men are simply monsters and there is no benefit to society in trying to understand them or their motivations. In fact, it is better not to try. In these instances, as a society, we have to draw a line. Mr. Penn and Rolling Stone magazine just crossed that line.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Rolling Stones Rape of Reportage & Journalistic Ethics

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"In journalism just one fact that is false prejudices the entire work."
Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Last year, Rolling Stone published a sensational cover story about a brutal gang rape on the University of Virginia campus. The details of the crime itself were horrific and inhuman but what made it more alarming was the magazine’s claim that university authorities, even friends and family of the rape victim, had all turned a blind eye to her claim. 

The article resulted in a public apology from the University, a closing down of the fraternity where the gang rape transpired and a police investigation into the crime. The only problem with Rolling Stone’s “A Rape on Campus“is that it turns out to be largely a fabrication. The police investigation found no evidence that the events described by Jackie, the victim, actually occurred.

The Washington Post and CNN were the first to cast serious doubts about the story, based not on their own investigating, but on noticing that the most simple and basic tenants of journalism seemed to have been ignored in the reportage. They quickly concluded that major parts of Jackie’s account of the horrific events did not add up. 

For example, the fraternity in question did not host a party on the evening the alleged gang rape took place. Also, Jackie’s friends, who helped her that evening, were never interviewed and told the Washington Post that they doubted most of the story because while Jackie had appeared visibly shaken there were no signs of the serious physical injuries (as Jackie has stated in the article). Finally, it turns out the reporter had made no attempt to speak to any of the alleged perpetrators; if she had, she would have found that one prime accused, Jackie had named, did not even belong to the fraternity in question. (Source: Washington Post article).

This whole thing goes far beyond a simple lapse in judgement and incompetence. Based on the available facts it is pretty clear that Rolling Stone’s editorial staff made a conscious decision to run with the story purely for the “sensational” aspects; and to fit a narrative that they were trying to create about sexual abuse on US college campuses. In doing so they chose to forgo the most basic tenets of journalism: fact checking, investigating, and corroborating to ensure the integrity of the storyteller, all with a healthy dose of skepticism that every journalist is meant to have. 

None of this is about disrespecting a rape victim or doubting her story – it is simply about being thorough and finding the truth. Frankly, Rolling Stone's reaction and lack of action after the fact is even more egregious and shocking; rather than take serious action, change processes, procedure and fire all those involved, they have instead tried to absolve themselves of blame at every juncture.

First, as the story began to unravel, Rolling Stone Editor Will Dana’s reaction was to immediately blame the victim. He said “In the face of new information, there now appear to be discrepancies in Jackie’s account, and we have come to the conclusion that our trust in her was misplaced,” (Source: Daily Beast article). 

The reporter who penned the story also seems to apportion blame to some warped notion of political correctness of not questioning a rape victim. She recently told the New York Times that “I allowed my concern for Jackie’s well-being, my fear of re-traumatizing her, and my confidence in her credibility to take the place of more questioning and more facts…” (Source: The Wrap article). 

Now, after the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism published a scathing investigative report (Read report: ‘A failure that was avoidable’) citing a complete failure of journalism; Rolling Stone has decided that not only will nobody be fired, but that “Rolling Stone’s senior editors are unanimous in the belief that the story’s failure does not require them to change their editorial systems” (Source: Daily Beast article). The magazine’s publisher, Jann S. Wenner, while acknowledging “flaws” in the piece, also told the New York Times that “it represented an isolated and unusual episode". He went on to blame Jackie when he added that “The problems with the article started with its source, Mr. Wenner said. He described her as “a really expert fabulist storyteller” who managed to manipulate the magazine’s journalism process.” (Source: Al Jazeera America article).

“The journalist places the public good above all else and uses certain methods – the foundation of which is a discipline of verification…” Journalism attempts to be fair and accurate. It does this through objective methods and managing bias” (Source: API website). As a blogger, which the American Press Institute states are not considered journalists, I take great pains to check my facts and always look for credible sources to verify them because the internet is full of “facts” that can be found to fit any narrative. 

A free and independent press is considered one of the fundamentals of a successful and strong democracy. Journalists are meant to hold a mirror to society, and in doing so, make us accountable for our actions. They are meant to do this without bias or prejudice and by reporting the facts. Conversely, credibility and trust are the bedrocks of a free press and something that each publication must strive to earn from readers, not take for granted.

I have always maintained that it is not so much the fact that human beings make mistakes, but how they behave after they have been caught that counts more. People and organisation’s actions after the fact are a better gauge of their integrity and depth of character. Rolling Stone has failed miserably on all counts because an apology is meaningless without the accountability of those involved facing consequences for their actions. It is clear that Rolling Stone believes that the people tasked with holding society accountable are not themselves accountable to the society they serve.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Ethics and Journalism in the Age of Social Media

"The media's the most powerful entity on earth. They have the power to make the innocent guilty and to make the guilty innocent, and that's power. Because they control the minds of the masses."
Malcom X

There is a fundamental issue that exists today and I want to call it the greatest existential crisis of our time; it is the choice to make money or to do the right thing. I understand that this choice is not something mankind is facing for the first time and that we have always grappled with it in capitalist societies, but my concern is that the tilt in favour of making money, today, seems to override standing on our principles and ethics. More than ever before in our history. Today, the vast majority of corporations and individuals seem to feel that bottom-line growth justifies the means, and this is something that should concern us all, greatly.

Media is the most powerful communication tool. In fact, I would argue that with the advent of social media, where anyone with an internet connection can spread news, the role of the mainstream media has not diminished but become even more important. The internet is filled with rumours and falsehoods, and social media in large part fuels stories that are unverified but popular and trending due to their sensational or gossipy nature. In such a world, the role of established media outlets as the arbiters or truth and fact checking, takes on much greater urgency. And it requires far more responsibility from editors and publishers than ever before in history. Yet driving eyeballs and making money has become an equally important goal for all these media houses that are struggling to survive in the digital age; a situation that has created a serious dilemma between chasing revenue and applying ethics in journalism. The question is whether to break news first (to drive maximum eyeballs and revenue) or wait to check the facts and risk being an hour late to the party - which in social media standard time is roughly a decade late.

Even though the reality is that speed and being first count for more eyeballs than being factually correct, it does not absolve so-called reputable media outlets of the greater responsibility that they have to society. With great power comes great responsibility. Granted, mainstream media is no longer our only source of information. For that reason, it is even more important for them to be sources of trusted and reliable information. Here, I make a distinction between cable news and mainstream news; the former is largely opinion, gossip and entertainment, while the latter needs to be the opposite. However, both should aspire to greater truth, based on some of the ethics and principles that have driven responsible journalism for centuries. They both wield tremendous influence over the masses and our minds.

Money can be made, but a reputation cannot be regained or fixed (with all the dollars in the world) once the trust between reader and institution has been broken. There should be absolutely no place for the sensational half-truths and lack of fact checking that we see from even the most venerable media institutions today. In the race to break a story or get retweeted into becoming a trending topic, they are all willing to put principles aside. Rolling Stone’s recent cover story on the horrific UVA campus rape, and the Fox News interview with a Seal Team Six member who was part of the Bin Laden raid, are both examples of the lack of ethics to which I am referring.

Rolling Stone clearly chose to run with a story based on the “sensational” aspects and in doing so chose to forego the most basic tenets of journalism: fact checking, investigating, and corroborating to ensure the integrity of the storyteller, all with a healthy dose of skepticism that every journalist is meant to have. None of this is about disrespecting the victim or doubting her story – it is simply about being thorough and finding the truth. Equally, Fox News did a disservice to our country by agreeing to give the Seal Team Six member a platform on which to speak publicly. There used to be an unbreakable code of honour among men who serve our country in the shadows. They did it knowing that nobody would ever know their sacrifice by face or name; there is no greater honour or valiance. I believe these men were the bravest of the brave because they were driven by a sense of duty, honour and the noblest quality in humanity, not by fame, fortune or personal glory. For this reason, Fox should have turned down the Seal Team Six member, even knowing that other news outlets like CBS or CNN would likely jump at the opportunity to do the same exclusive interview with him. If Fox News had done this, they not only might have won my and many peoples respect, but also would have set a very important precedent that is much needed in journalism today – doing the right thing.

Equally, I was shocked by the number of media outlets that jumped to disseminate the embarrassing Sony Studio emails and other private and personal information of executives and employees.  Everyone was aware that this information was stolen and released to the public by hackers. We live in the age of WikiLeaks, but there is a fundamental difference between a whistle blower and a hacker. The latter is always theft and extortion. I have no problem with media reporting the hacking, even debating the state actors behind it and investigating the fingerprint of the hackers, but institutions like The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post should have stopped short of sharing the stolen information. They can and will probably justify their actions using “Bartnicki vs Vopper,” where the Supreme Court ruled that “...the playing of illegally intercepted material under these circumstances was constitutionally protected, at least when the broadcaster wasn’t involved in the illegal interception...” (Source: Washington Post Article). They are legally within their rights, but my point is not about legality. It has to do with guiding principles and ethics; things that used to be the cornerstones of our society and journalism just a few decades ago. My expectation would have been for these outlets to refrain from publishing any of the stolen information; leaving that to less reputable sites. A refusal to publish would also have sent a very strong message to future hackers and served as a great disincentive to take the risk. It is notoriety, through widespread exposure, that drives these cowardly criminals.

Media outlets who want to be regarded as respectable should consider hacked information off-limits, much the way eBay considers stolen goods listing unacceptable or how Sotheby’s will not try to auction a painting for which the provenance is in serious doubt. Doing so will draw an important ethical line in the sand which is so desperately missing in journalism today - integrity. They may also gain our respect and their eyeballs, as others start to follow suit.