By Daniel Coronell*
Interviewing criminals is legitimate. An interview is not an adherence to the actions of the interviewee; it is not an act of supporting him, but a resource to get information for the citizens. It is valid to interview Pablo Escobar, Carlos Castaño, Tirofijo, or Osama bin Laden. Of course, for an interview to be journalistic it has to ensure the complete independence of the interviewer from the interviewee, whether criminal or not. No matter if the interviewee is "El Chapo" Guzmán or His Holiness the Pope.
The story I will tell you started three years ago.
Univision, the network I work for in America, has the privilege of having the journalist Gerardo Reyes as director of the investigative unit. Throughout his life, Gerardo has won almost the full range of existing journalism awards: the Pulitzer, the Peabody, the Ortega y Gasset, an Emmy, and many others. Beyond those awards is the simple fact that he has become an ethical benchmark for many of his colleagues.
In March 2013 Gerardo was working on a profile of the Mexican drug trafficker Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán in preparation of a TV special. Seeking information in El Chapo’s hometown, he found a source that said he could take a message to the fugitive.
Distrustfully—which is mandatory in a reporter—Gerardo sent the first message and, after a wait of several weeks, he got an answer. Since he had studied the criminal for years, he found that the message really could have come from El Chapo himself. Besides, recent and unpublished photographs also accompanied it.
The questions had such a specific level of detail that the source assured that Guzman had exclaimed, ‘‘how does that bastard know all this?’’
Gerardo then asked, through the intermediary, for an interview with whom was already the world's most wanted man. The answer took a long time and came with a condition: "El Chapo" accepted to give the first interview of his life as long as the content was approved by him before publication.
I transcribed the response Gerardo Reyes sent, verbatim: “Univision’s policy establishes that once an interview is over, the respondent cannot make changes to its content nor define what should or should not be used from his statements. The selection of his statements for the final product is the responsibility of Univision and that selection is made following the highest professional journalistic criteria such as balance, relevance and respect for the meaning of such statements.”
The journalistic rigor was stronger than the desire to get a scoop.
"El Chapo" was captured a few months later, in February 2014, and escaped from the maximum-security prison through a tunnel in July 2015. A month after the escape, the source came into contact with Gerardo and his team. On August 27, 2015, Gerardo, three members of Univision Investiga, and I met that person.
The source showed us pictures of “El Chapo” after the escape, told us that he was interested in giving the interview and that he had contacted the actress Kate del Castillo and director Oliver Stone to make a movie. Interestingly he never mentioned Sean Penn.
The source also suggested that the interview would be conducted with cameras provided by “El Chapo”. We declined that possibility because it would leave—again—the control of the material in the hands of the respondent.
The source left with the promise of trying to arrange the interview with Univision technical equipment and without restrictions. In September he wrote to Gerardo to say that “the film crew” would come a few days later and he would continue insisting.
The recapture of "El Chapo" ended showing that at some point both the film and the interview became just one thing.
Actors enjoy artistic licenses that reporters do not have. If Mr. Penn—an extremely talented actor—were a journalist, he would have had to reject the terms of the interviewee as Gerardo Reyes did.
*Daniel Coronell is the Executive Vice President and Director of Univision News. This article was published in Spanish as part of his weekly collaboration with the Colombian magazine Semana.The piece in Spanish can be read here.