Tennis, Sean Penn and the new ‘journalism’

 Sean Penn at the 2013 New York Film Festival. Photograph by Sachyn Mita

Sean Penn at the 2013 New York Film Festival. Photograph by Sachyn Mita

Was it mere coincidence that Charlie Rose’s interview with Sean Penn – about his Rolling Stone interview with El Chapo – should air just as a story broke about match-fixing in tennis?

Both say much about the sorry state of journalism.

No less an authority than Penn pronounced the Fourth Estate to be in trouble. And with him netting cover assignments it’s little wonder.

For those who’ve been on planet Pluto, Penn snagged an interview with the dealer of all drug dealers – who had escaped from a Mexican prison – basically because El Chapstick was hot for some actress, Kate del Castillo, who facilitated the encounter.

For all his bluster, “60 Minutes”’ Rose failed to ask Penn two pointed questions:

What makes him a journalist?

And why shouldn’t he and del Castillo be arrested and charged as accessories or, at the very least, obstructionists?

Penn – whose “60 Minutes” appearance wasn’t high on magical thinking – described himself as an “experiential” journalist who couldn’t be bothered with the petty details of all the lives El Chapo has destroyed. He’s about the visceral mano-a-mano. (For his part, El Chappy has come up with the standard drug dealer retort: There’s no supply without demand. It’s equally true, however, in supply-demand economics, that there’s no fulfillment of the demand without a supply.)

For his part, Penn hoped to have a “dialogue” with the reader about America’s failed drug policy. You want to do something about drugs in America? Testify before Congress. Lobby your state legislature and municipal government. Support rehab clinics and police agencies. Work to change the heavy prison sentences for first-time offenders. Speak to kids in school. Talk with their parents. Put your money where your mouth is.

Leave the “reporting” to those of us who know how to gather facts and craft them into compelling narratives and stop being fatuous.

I will agree with Penn about one thing: Journalism has its problems. We need look no further than the story that broke about match-fixing among 16 top tennis players over a decade. This as the Australian Open got underway coincidentally – or not. No players were named, and for Roger Federer, that was understandably troubling:

"I would love to hear names," the 17-time Grand Slam champ told reporters at the Australian Open. "Then at least it's concrete stuff and you can actually debate about it. Was it the player? Was it the support team? Who was it? Was it before? Was it a doubles player, a singles player? Which slam?’”

Getting out in front of the narrative – always a good thing – Novak Djokovic said his team was offered a $150,000 bribe when he was a teenager in 2006, but it was rebuffed before it ever reached him.

“I don’t think a shadow is cast over our sport,” the defending champ said (per The Guardian). “People are talking about names, guessing who these players are. But there’s no real proof or evidence yet of any active players, for that matter. As long as it’s like that, it’s just speculation.”

But why all the speculation? In the old days of Underwood typewriters, if you had a story with no names – or names that had been exonerated – the editor would toss it back to you, saying you had no story. If you wrote a piece about a controversial figure and sent it to him for approval – as Penn did with El Chapo – you’d be fired.

In the age of the Internet, however, anything goes to drive up the hits and the likes on Facebook. On the Web, so-called “citizen journalists” – as my friend, former Gannett fashion writer Barbara Nachman, dubbed them – think that as long as they can text “F U” that they’re somehow reporters and essayists. It’s like the people who pick up microphones and think that makes them singers or those that pick up cameras and think that makes them photographers, videographers or filmmakers.

It doesn’t. Technology doesn’t drive people. People drive technology unless they want to live in the Empire in the “Star Wars” movies. It’s no accident that Darth Vader becomes a machine.

As for match- and game-fixing, it has happened and it’s a shame, because sport is not art. Art is organized in time and space. No matter who plays Hamlet or how his play is set, Hamlet will always die at the end of Act 5.

The beauty of sport is that you never know what’s going to happen. The best team doesn’t always win, as the perfect Patriots will tell you.

But before we pooh-pooh the latest example of match-fixing, let’s get all the facts and shape them using every aspect of the written word at our command.

Otherwise, it’s just so much mental masturbation.