Penn's piece on Guzmán was published Saturday night, one day after the Sinaloa cartel head's recapture by authorities. But Penn said his contact with Guzmán was last year, when the cartel head was then a fugitive after his escape from federal prison in July.
The Rolling Stone piece – already the No. 1 most-read item on its website – is additionally prefaced with an editor's note that it was submitted for Guzmán's approval before publication, though the magazine said he did not "ask for any changes."
While some readers marveled on social media at the sheer oddness of the interview as an idea, some journalists took issue with the focus and tone of the piece, which some said obscured Guzmán's history as a violent drug trafficker.
A few journalists also blanched at the arrangement of prior review. And some simply took issue with Penn's first-person narrative, which included a mention that he had to "expel minor traveler's flatulence" in front of his interview subject.
Good moment to remember what happens to real journalists who cover Mexican drug traffickers https://t.co/xb7OASMTNe— Marty Baron (@PostBaron) January 10, 2016
THOUGH ABSENT ANY HUMAN CALCULUS THAT MAY PROVIDE US A SENSE OF ANCHORED COMMONALITY pic.twitter.com/mkLbvZZFcs— Katherine Miller (@katherinemiller) January 10, 2016
For those saying any media organization would do what Rolling Stone did: You are totally wrong.— Chris Cillizza (@TheFix) January 10, 2016
I don't think it was worth @RollingStone giving up editorial control to a murderer for Sean Penn's diary entry and a short Q&A at the end.— Jamil Smith (@JamilSmith) January 10, 2016
It was not a universal backlash.
While Mexican government sources told ABC News Penn, 55, was now under investigation for the interview, authorities also told the Associated Press that it was his meeting with Guzmán in October that allowed them to first locate the kingpin, in an ultimately aborted raid.
As the New York Times noted, the candid comments Guzmán gave to Penn, in his first interview in years, "mark[ed] a stark admission that he has operated a drug empire."
I only say this partly in jest. If Sean Penn wasn't a Hollywood actor he'd have a shot at a Pulitzer: https://t.co/TmG0xsARkV— Paul Lewis (@PaulLewis) January 10, 2016
Sean Penn infiltrated a dangerous Mexican drug cartel leading to the apprehension of a wanted killer and everyone's criticizing his prose?— Matthew Yglesias (@mattyglesias) January 10, 2016
Guzmán was recaptured early Friday following a shootout with marines.
Penn declined to comment on the interview when he attended his Help Haiti Home charity gala in Los Angeles a few hours after the story's publication.