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Journalism As Extreme Sport

HBO's "Vice" goes from Brooklyn to Afghanistan, ironic distance intact


The first two episodes of “Vice,” a newsmagazine show premiering tonight on HBO, feature footage of exploding suicide bombers, a rogue Filipino gunsmith fashioning pistols as a kitten sits inches away, and lingering shots of severed hands and heads. In the pilot, Shane Smith, Vice Media CEO, heads to Afghanistan to interview teenage Jihadists and meet with a Taliban leader. "You see the effects of suicide bombing," Smith says, "and I dunno, it fucks your head up."

At 42, Smith is big and bearded with the gruff, smoky voice of an aging rocker. Talking to him, you get the sense that his vision for "Vice" contains two battling strains. On the one hand is a disgust with the partisan news landscape and an angry passion for the issues addressed in his show. “The human race is facing all kinds of problems and all we are doing is pointing fingers and saying, your interpretation of the problem is different from my interpretations of the problem,” he told me. “I want people to know what war is about.” But on the other hand is the scary ennui of a man who has mastered the web traffic game, who knows what people want to see and is determined to deliver it, who has built an empire on flinging sensational clips at the Internet in a wild bid for eyeballs. “I like to punch you in the face,” he said. “I want to surprise you, I want to be like nothing you’ve seen before. The next day at the bar I want you to go, fuck, did you see that thing on Vice?”

Vice first launched in Montreal in the mid-’90s as a foul-mouthed little zine that set out to be the voice of youth counter-culture. It gradually expanded into a global organization with some 900,000 subscribers. But the turning point, Smith told me, was the creation of the online video site in 2006. He was infuriated by media coverage of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. “I thought, somebody should say something about this. Then I realized I had one of the biggest youth platforms in the world.” The motto was “Rescuing you from television’s deathlike grip.” Now Vice is a mini-media empire based in Williamsburg that includes a flourishing website, an in-house ad agency, and a record label. Its YouTube channel has over a million subscribers. The HBO show offers a few birds-eye glimpses of Vice’s Brooklyn headquarters, all exposed brick and funky wall art, like a Williamsburg coffeehouse furnished with cubicles. Before striking the deal with HBO, Vice turned down an offer from another major network to create its own news show. As Smith recalls it, his agent Ari Emanuel (brother of Rahm and the model for "Entourage"'s Ari Gold) told him: “Listen, they are gonna censor you to death.”

HBO has not defanged the "Vice" brand. In the pilot, a correspondent in the Philippines follows a governor registering for reelection amid assassination attempts and visits a militia camp that trains child soldiers. The second episode features a South Korean pastor who helps women sold into sex slavery to escape from North Korea, shepherding them—“Vice” rep included—on a late-night boat ride across the Mekong River into Thailand. The show’s correspondents are lanky guys in skinny jeans and button-downs and thick-framed black glasses, and the strangeness of seeing these displaced urbanites standing on a mound of rubble or wandering through a crowd of rifle-toting child soldiers never quite wears off. They all have the same semi-wakeful SoCal drawl and an attitude toward their dire surroundings that can feel less like outrage than insouciance. “Everyone has a gun, man,” says correspondent Ryan Duffy, sporting tattoos and a fauxhawk, to the Filipino governor. “That’s a lot of cars, man,” he says of the governor’s convoy.

“Vice” is amateur journalism—Smith continually refers to himself as a “regular guy” rather than a professional reporter—as extreme sport, with a current of real and visible danger running through every scene. It has been called “stunt journalism” and “gonzo journalism,” phrases that Smith laughingly dismisses. “If the standard of traditional journalism is the Fourth Estate, that turned a blind eye to the Iraq War, to Bush talking about weapons of mass destruction, when anybody with half a fucking brain knew that what he was saying was complete idiocy, when it became perceived as un-American to question Bush, then I don’t want to be American thank you very much,” Smith told me.

But the show remains resolutely light on context, its political commentary restricted to nuts and bolts: “In a corrupt system, politicians can amass huge amounts of wealth and power if they hold top government positions,” one voiceover declares. “The most successful suicide attack of all time was 9/11. In fact it was so powerful that it led to the U.S. invasion of both Iraq and Afghanistan,” says another. And for all the war crimes and gross human injustice Smith has witnessed and documented, his fiercest scorn seems to be directed at the old-guard mainstream media outlets, too squeamishly concerned with journalistic ethics to send Dennis Rodman to North Korea to hobnob with Kim Jong-un. “Every time FOX news says, ‘These guys are punks, I’m like, ‘Guess what? I got a million more followers,’” Smith said. “Because young people are disenfranchised by mainstream news, and that’s the fastest growing segment of our business. Anytime anyone goes after us it makes us stronger within our own demo. So I don’t really give a shit.” In one memorable scene from the documentary Page One (2011), New York Times reporter David Carr rips into Smith for accusing the Times of covering “surfing” while Vice was covering “cannibalism” in Liberia.  “Just because you put on a fucking safari hat and looked at some poop doesn’t give you the right to insult what we do,” says Carr, as Smith looked momentarily cowed. The clip went viral, but Smith didn’t mind. “I was tickled pink ‘cause Vice was in the fucking dialogue,” he said.

In the premiere, one Filipino says of the children at the militia camp that “they think war is just like a film.” You could say the same about “Vice”: that it fetishizes violence, trivializing war by paring it down to its most vivid and gruesome moments and offering them up without context. Vice’s hunger for traffic is built into its aesthetic: the bluntness of its images, the starkness of its themes, the way it darts from topic to topic without unpacking any of them. This is not to say that much of Vice’s show isn’t powerful stuff. The access they manage to get is deeply impressive and often makes for riveting scenes. The interviews with young Afghan would-be suicide bombers are terrifying and heartbreaking to watch. And it is arguably better for young people to process war as a kind of gory carnival than to not see any of it at all.

But “Vice” mostly peddles an aggressive nihilism, an undifferentiated stream of brutal images and events. By the second episode, all the gunshots and explosions have begun to sound as phony and rote as special effects. The thinness of context makes the trauma feel mostly atmospheric, all this highly specific misery and atrocity blending into a single panorama of carnage. War becomes a series of assaultive clips and soundbites, the sum reduced to its parts. So the world is screwed, the government is corrupt, war is a desolate waste. Child soldiers, enslaved sex workers, a cross-dressing basketball star befriending a heinous dictator: It is all sad and mystifying and strange.

At one point in the premiere, Smith, listening to an Afghan family discuss their young children who died in a bombing, is visibly moved. “As a father…” he says, choking up. “All I know is that when I go somewhere, I’m not an autobot,” he told me. “I am a human being. I am not an actor.” But then the nihilism returns, the ironic distance, the executive’s eye toward the bottom line. “You can call me a stunt journalist, you can call me whatever the fuck you wanna call me, I don’t care,” he said. “I care about my audience growing.”

Follow Laura Bennett on Twitter @lbennett.