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VICE: News For Our Generation?

Arts & Culture | February 3, 2014

Last year, the counter-culture magazine VICE premiered a news-format television series on HBO. The self-titled program is a perversion of 60 Minutes targeted at millenials, with in-depth reporting on outlandish yet newsworthy stories around the world. The series features some of the most alarming and current stories of the year, including unprecedented access into North Korea, interviews with children being trained as suicide bombers for the Taliban, and crews in Nigeria who mine and refine their own crude oil. The mostly white, male, skinny, tattooed reporting team are shown in the middle of gunfights and explosions, speaking with the up-talking drawl and existential self-reflection that are endemic to urban 20-somethings. As Rolling Stone writes, “It feels a little like your buddy from the bar just happened to be wandering through eastern Afghanistan with a camera crew.”

The final episode of the series features a piece in which a VICE reporter, a few Harlem Globetrotters, and Dennis Rodman visit North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un. The Harlem Globetrotters and an unlucky VICE reporter join North Korea’s national basketball team for a demonstration of “basketball diplomacy” in a country that censors essentially all foreign media and communication. The game ended symbolically with an impossible show of good sportsmanship: a 110-110 tie. The piece featured the young reporter looking on in shock at a state dinner and tours of opulent but empty supermarkets and cityscapes. At one point, reporters were brought to a room of civilians allegedly working on computers; each one stared at an empty Google search bar with apparent confusion. The reporter mused about the strictness of their tour schedule and the attitudes of the Korean people they encountered. At times, the gonzo-style journalism revealed elements of both the bleak quotidian scenes and the incomprehensibly opulent ceremony of government but overall implied a trip that seemed to be a carefully crafted fallacy.

Due to its unconventional reporting style, VICE has become a black sheep within the news community, drawing deep criticism from old guard reporters such as Dan Rather.Though perhaps this negative attention is exactly what has brought VICE a degree of legitimacy amongst young viewers. Tufts freshman Gus Esselstyn explained his conflicted interest in the HBO series: “There are so many ways you can present a news story. They do this psycho journalism where they’re so involved they turn it into a game. But at the same time this is HBO; this is entertainment.” Leaving behind such burdensome pillars of traditional journalism as objectivity and accuracy, the VICE crew dives into important conflicts and political movements that are either too dangerous or too obscure for mainstream media sources to touch. With an untraditional approach to online and television-based journalism, VICE is tapping into stories that interest millenials, while delivering said content through avenues that are relevant to them.

Despite VICE’s reputation as a counterculture news source, the magazine’s image has been reworked and tamed in recent years. VICE began in 1994 as a free magazine based in Montreal, with the mission of covering the shadowy underworlds of politics, sex, and popular culture. As a platform for showcasing undiscovered artists, photographers, journalists, poets, and designers, VICE moved its headquarters to Williamsburg, Brooklyn before going international. In 2013, 21st Century Fox invested $70 million in VICE, earning a 5 percent stake in the company, although founder Shane Smith maintains autonomy over content and publication. This sort of high-low, against-the-odds story defines the progress of VICE from low budget depravity to broader cracks at legitimacy. Even the description on its Twitter account, which until early last year read, “VICE: The all-seeing, all-swallowing whore of Gomorrah” now reads, “VICE: The definitive guide to enlightening information.”

Although VICE is famous for its HBO series, its most contentious material resides in the many web series it produces. With headlines ranging from “The Burmese Bin Laden Swears He’s a Good Guy” to “This Guy Shot Porn on the Westboro Baptist Church’s Lawn,” VICE toes the lines separating humor, irony, and hard-hitting reporting. Spinning traditional reporting formats is one of the site’s fortes. For instance, the cooking series Munchies follows young, world-renowned chefs through nights of marijuana haze and drunkenness to experience their cities through the perspective of a stoned culinary insider. Its most popular and emblematic web series Fringes covers the stories of individuals living on the edge of society. In one episode, they follow a delivery drug dealer in New York City. In another, they conduct interviews with residents of a shantytown in Tijuana, Mexico, where hundreds of thousands of deportees from the United States reside.

It is difficult to say whether VICE is indeed a legitimate news outlet, but it has certainly found its niche in popular culture with an ever-growing online and television audience. It does cover some incredibly important material alongside raunchier content—including dedicating an entire issue to the conflict in Syria in late 2012—months before traditional media outlets began in-depth coverage. Likewise, its coverage of the realms of sex, drugs, and trafficking are no less legitimate for falling outside the traditional lens of the mainstream purview. It is rather the ways in which these conflicts are presented that has earned deserved criticism and continues to challenge the legitimacy of the newsgroup. Despite, or perhaps due to, VICE’s flawed reputation, Forbes recently estimated its value at over $200 million, with viewership on the rise. Regardless of repute, journalistic ethics, or professionalism, VICE will likely continue to provide the worst coverage of the best stories of our time, and young audiences will continue to watch.