With a new semester that includes Longform Journalism, I’d thought we’d kick off with a look at the bizarre story that involves Mexico’s biggest drug lord, a famous American actor and, arguably, the US’s biggest pop-culture magazine.

Here’s a good New York Times story that explains how the “most powerful drug trafficker in the world,” Joaquín Guzmán Loera, better known as El Chapo, was re-captured after a highly engineered prison escape involving a motorcycle attached to rails in a tunnel built by German-trained engineers to connect with El Chapo’s prison-cell shower.

After his prison break last summer, El Chapo was nearly caught having dinner with Kate del Castillo, a Mexican actress El Chapo has a crush on, who brought along her actor friend Sean Penn. El Chapo met with Castillo, who once played a drug kingpin in a Mexican soap opera, to discuss a movie he wanted to make about himself. (It was El Chapo’s first meeting with Castillo after a number of affectionate texts published in Spanish here. He had never heard of Sean Penn.)

A few months later, El Chapo was finally captured. It was the large taco order that tipped off police.

During the tequila and taco dinner with El Chapo at a picnic table in the jungle, Penn interviewed the man for seven hours as Castillo, who had never meet El Chapo before, translated. Based on this conversation, follow-up questions by phone and a couriered video from El Chapo, Penn published a more than 10,000-word first-person story in Rolling Stone magazine.

Penn’s article has received all kinds of criticism. First, the journalistic method: Penn did not take notes during the interview and allowed El Chapo to review the article before publication, a journalistic no-no, even though El Chapo requested no changes. Don Winslow, who has written extensively about Mexico’s cartels, accuses Penn of asking soft questions that sympathize with a man directly responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths.Winslow says it was Penn’s concern with “experiential journalism” that kept him from asking questions about sex with under-age girls, bribes, decapitations, mutilations and betrayals.

Experiential journalism is nothing new. In this article published in The Conversation, it’s not the questions that get criticized, but the writing. Penn, the writer Dan Dixon says, is just following in the footsteps of “a troupe of egomaniacal white men,” referring to Hunter S. Thompson, Tom Wolfe and the gang who coined the term New Journalism, sometimes called literary journalism, in the 60s and 70s. At their best, these writers attempted to capture humanity, the article says, using the writer’s perspective to create access to another’s world. Penn flaw is that he never leaves his own head, Dixon writes.

In class, we learn that immersion journalism, meaning when the writer uses his or her own experiences as part of the story, is to provide a perspective in the struggle to understand something about the world. It differs from memoir in which the writer uses personal experiences to learn something about the writer herself. Penn’s piece fits neither journalism nor memoir. The long digressions about Penn himself — mentioning his childhood surfing skills and boasting about his “situational awareness” formed from traveling to dangerous places — and the introduction of El Chapo as a character at only around word 4,000, keep us from learning much about either the writer or the subject.

Penn’s goal is noble: he, like many, is frustrated by the US’s War on Drugs, and he put a lot of effort into finding someone central to the illegal drug industry to talk to. And, around the didactic rambling, the story is intriguing for its adventurous oddity. But in a CBS interview where he attacks journalists for how little they know, Penn fails to see that he has essentially written a puff piece that puts him in the same category as the very people he is criticizing.