Sean Penn a ‘Normal’ Freelancer for ‘SF Chron’

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By: Joe Strupp

As the San Francisco Chronicle runs part two of Sean Penn’s epic diary from Iraq today, Chronicle Editor Phil Bronstein contends that the famed actor is being treated like any freelancer, receiving a standard writer’s fee and full credentials from the paper.

“I don’t know if he ever needed it or used it,” Bronstein said about the letter he gave Penn that verified his status as a Chronicle writer. “He went over essentially as a freelancer.” He said Penn would be paid for the articles, within the paper’s usual freelance fees ranging from $200 to up to $1,000, depending on the length, but the paper would not cover the expenses for his five-day trip.

Bronstein told E&P he had received several e-mails on the column Wednesday, both in favor of and against Penn’ work. “It does elicit a lot of interesting emotion out there,” he said. Today’s 6,600-word story suggests that getting out of Iraq is even more challenging than getting in.

Penn, who first visited Iraq in December 2002 and received some criticism for it, had talked with Bronstein, a friend and Bay Area neighbor, several months ago about possibly returning and putting his experiences into a diary form for the Chronicle (Click for QuikCap).

That second visit occurred in mid-December 2003, with Penn leaving just before Saddam Hussein’s capture, Bronstein said.

“We talked before he went and when he was there and when he got back,” Bronstein said. “It turned out to be a diary of things he observed.”

Bronstein stressed that the lengthy two-part piece, which is running in the paper’s “Datebook” features section and online, does not elaborate on Penn’s political views, but rather the people he saw and life in the post-war Iraq. “There aren’t a lot of geo-political observations,” the editor pointed out. “But there was a lot of what he saw and how he felt. That was what we were looking for.”

Penn is not expected to write anything else on Iraq for the paper, but Bronstein did not rule out future pieces from the locally-based actor. “We are always glad to have contributions from local residents,” said Bronstein, “if they are interesting and relevant.”

In his massive Part I tome, Penn described making the trip via a contact with Global Exchange, a San Francisco human rights organization, which was planning to take a delegation of parents of military personnel (some killed in action, some still serving) to Iraq on a “mission of peace.” Penn wrote that the “tricky” part was gaining the support of his own family: “My reputation within our home is one of impulsiveness, hubris and an overall bloated sense of my own survival instincts.”

At great length in Part I, Penn described his step-by-step progress into Iraq from the Jordanian border, through the Sunni Triangle, and into Baghdad, where he stayed at the Institute for War and Peace Reporting — arranged by columnist Norman Solomon and Newsday’s (Click for QuikCap) Baghdad correspondent Mohamad Bazzi. Penn wrote that he liked to “pick the brains and experiences” of reporters there: “There is a great calm that is inherent in the nature of war correspondents. I borrow it for the days that follow.”

Penn also met soldiers and officers, who seem to bear him no ill will despite his well-publicized pre-invasion antiwar views. Iraqi citizens praised freedom but told him “there is no freedom in occupation, nor trust in unilateral intervention.”

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