Can Vice Make News Hip?

It’s not much of an exaggeration to say that the mainstream media thoroughly loathes Vice, the punk magazine turned global video empire. The company, which has shot to fame on the back of documentary video segments about the weird, the violent, and the bizarre, has managed to succeed where its mainstream rivals have failed spectacularly: ...

Courtesy of Vice
Courtesy of Vice

It’s not much of an exaggeration to say that the mainstream media thoroughly loathes Vice, the punk magazine turned global video empire.

The company, which has shot to fame on the back of documentary video segments about the weird, the violent, and the bizarre, has managed to succeed where its mainstream rivals have failed spectacularly: creating news video packages that both appeal to and entertain young people. In doing so, they’ve brought what might be described as a unique sensibility to online news: distinctly subjective, featuring hand-held cameras, typically laced with profanity, often featuring drug use, in little-known corners of the world. A selection of their recent documentary offerings include “Life as a Truck Stop Stripper” and “Heroin Holiday in the Czech Republic,” but also extensive coverage of both the crisis in Crimea and the protest movement in Venezuela.

Vice’s video offerings have long had a news bent to them, providing jaundiced, often very funny dispatches on themes loosely tied to current events. Now, the company is doubling down on that sensibility and has launched a news vertical, titled, you guessed it, Vice News. But through a partnership with HBO — in addition to a slew of other channels — Vice has extended its reach beyond the web and has established its bona fides as a global media player capable of competing against bigger outlets with deeper experience in video journalism — think CNN, al Jazeera, MSNBC, etc.

That partnership is perhaps best known for bringing together North Korean strongman Kim Jong Un and the mercurial former NBA great Dennis Rodman. On Friday, the show will air a segment on the impact of U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan and the degree to which the Taliban has successfully used the strikes as a recruiting tool. Slowly but surely, Vice is edging in on territory typically dominated by more established media outlets.

“If you turn on the TV right now and turn to CNN, chances are you’re going to end up getting six hours about the Malaysian airliner,” Suroosh Alvi, one of Vice’s co-founders and the host of Friday’s segment about drone strikes, told Foreign Policy in an interview. “I’m actually stunned as to the volume of coverage about this plane. It’s like nothing else is happening in the world. They are thereby making our jobs very easy to give our audience what they want, which is stories about the rest of the world.”

That’s a more radical notion than it might seem. The online revolution in journalism was supposed to herald a shift away from foreign coverage and herald the shuttering of international bureaus. But Vice repeatedly bucks that trend. They have offices spread around the world and are delivering coverage of key international issues, some of which has been quite excellent.

In Friday’s episode of their HBO special, Alvi travels northwest Pakistan to report on how the Taliban have turned U.S. drone strikes in the region to their advantage. He interviews local officials and activists, sits down with a heavily masked Taliban fighter, and even manages to procure footage from a Taliban training camp. In a piece of ludicrous footage that’s straight from Vice’s Freudian id, a senior Taliban commander hoists a Soviet-era machine gun and fires haphazardly from a hilltop.

Taken together, the documentary executes a deft, if well-worn, critique of U.S. drone strikes: that they are creating more enemies than they are killing and that the Taliban has turned the strikes into an effective recruiting tool. “There is a cockroach effect that’s been happening since 9/11,” Alvi says. “America stamps down on the Taliban in Afghanistan, and they scrambled into the tribal areas of Pakistan. Then they droned they hell out of them in the tribal areas, and the cockroaches then scrambled all over the country.”

Friday’s HBO episode isn’t the first time Alvi has traveled to Pakistan to document what might be broadly called the futility of the current methods being used to combat extremism there, and Alvi’s coverage of Pakistan can be seen as a template for Vice’s success. His 2006 dispatch from the gun markets of Peshawar generated huge interest online and showcased the kind of storytelling that has made Vice a darling of the Internet and an object of hatred among the established media. Dressed like a parody of a Taliban warlord, Alvi travels to the rugged Pakistani tribal areas and proceeds to go on buying spree for guns. He brandishes various weapons at the camera, inspects the wares of a gun maker who has no tongue,  and shoots an AK-47 off a rooftop. All in all, he has a great time:

And that’s partly why the mainstream media so loathes it. Unlike, say, the sage scribes of the New York Times, Vice remains content to send their correspondents into the field, where they have some fun, do some “crazy shit” — a favorite phrase of their on-camera hosts — and capture it all on camera. Vice isn’t searching for a capital “t” notion of the truth, and that drives some more traditional news organizations, well, a bit crazy. It’s a conflict that was memorably captured in a scene of the documentary Page One in which New York Times media critic David Carr dresses down Vice co-founder Shane Smith for his coverage of Liberia:

And Carr has a point. The viewer doesn’t walk away from their documentary about Liberia having gained a lot of insight about the conflict. Rather, the documentary mainly consists of Smith getting into sticky situations, extricating himself, and reveling on-camera in how much danger he has put himself. For journalists and war correspondents who get shot at on a regular basis and don’t brag about it on camera, that perspective is understandably infuriating.

But the criticism also misses the point: Vice is more of a lifestyle company than it is a news organization, even if that perspective is shifting. Part of Vice’s appeal lies in its aspirational quality. Most desk-bound hipsters watching Vice documentaries about, for example, the Congo dream about getting out from behind their computers for a little adventure. Watching someone like Alvi tromp around the Congolese jungle in his selvedge jeans and complain to the camera about how he is “soft” and probably shouldn’t have gone looking for a band of murderous rebels instinctively appeals to that demographic. He, in short, is selling a dream of a lifestyle.

More importantly, Vice has figured how to package news in such a way that young people will consume it online. Just have a look at the title credits of another Alvi production from Pakistan, this one about Karachi. This is news run through the filter of 1970s spaghetti westerns and bad kung fu flicks:

As in his other productions, Alvi walks through the streets of Karachi in some high-quality denim, great sunglasses, and cool shirts. He interviews gangsters, heroin addicts, incompetent cops, and a contract killer. The word “fuck” is in heavy rotation; the “vibe” is described as “heavy.” And it all makes for great watching. “In our desire to create authentic content, that always was an important factor: get as close to the source as possible,” Alvi told FP. “It may be more raw than a lot of the polished content that was out there, but it’s also important to be able to substantiate and also be credible.”

In doing so, Alvi has become rich. Last year, Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. purchased a 5 percent stake in Vice that valued the company at $1.4 billion. Smith has even floated the notion that the company could go public.

So has Vice sold out? Alvi says no, that the company’s values have remained the same.

Judge for yourself on HBO tonight.

Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @EliasGroll

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