Hands up if you know who the journalist David Carr is? He was one of the New York Times most prized journalists, a venerated writer who pioneered a brazen type of journalism. Carr was not afraid to kick doors down and ask the important, fearless questions. Unfortunately, David died of cancer in 2015 at the youthful age of 58. Before he passed, there was a documentary that was released about him called Page One, in which a famous exchange takes place between Carr and the founders of Vice, Shane Smith, Surosh Alvi and Eddie Moretti.
Carr gives the trio a lesson in manners and humbleness, or to be more blunt, a K.O. In one swift exchange, he visibly turns Shane Smith’s entire world into an eggshell. In response to Smith’s assertion that whilst Vice was out there doing the hardcore journalistic pursuits such as covering cannibalism in Liberia, the New York Times were merely putting out stories on surfing, Carr’s retort was as follows; “Before you ever went there, we’ve had reporters there reporting on genocide after genocide. Just because you put on a fuckin’ safari helmet and looked at some poop doesn’t give you the right to insult what we do. ” It really is beautiful to watch.
There is a wide consensus right now that Vice is indestructible, with the arsenal to lead media into the future. Apparently, they know how to speak the language of the disaffected youth – now their parents are out of the room they can have a real discussion. This is what they built their entire culture around, and forms their USP for advertisers. They are now worth a reported $5.7 billion, receive roughly 50 million of your clicks every month and count investors such as your favorite evil grandpa Rupert Murdoch, Walt Disney, and WPP. Yes, you heard right Walt Disney.
Ever since Vice started in a Montreal garage in 1994, they have amassed an incredibly impressive empire, working their way around the world, leading with their cynical style of journalism that has managed to make an indelible mark in the minds of 15-35 year-olds everywhere.
At first, it was a street magazine, but now Vice stands as a mixed-media multi-channel ‘news’ organisation. Their many different titles have bled their way into pop culture at every ill-conceived intersection, from feminist site Broadly to Motherboard for technology. In a world that is inundated with news feeds from every which source, the pivot in how we consume news has been cleverly monopolised on. Advertisers quiver around them, brands salivate at the mention of working with them. They want the young blood of youth.
Shane and his gang have found a way to strike a balance between a punkish, carefree adolescence approach and the veneer of a serious new organisation. But not everyone is happy with the way Vice has become a masthead for the youth.
We are entering a new age where everything has become more transparent, where there aren’t adorned critics anymore, in fact, everyone has become a citizen critic. This means that Vice is no more subject to transparent criticism than anyone else. The way David Carr pulled up Shane in this pithy exchange in 2009 was clearly ahead of his time and hinted at a deeper truth, which some people out there would agree with: Vice has ridden this lucky slide by abandoning their moral and ethical obligations to society, by treating almost everything with irreverence. They behave in a way that is reckless, endangering young corruptible minds. Especially considering the fact that former founder Gavin Mcinnes said amongst other horrendous exploits that the only reason why they started Vice “was to get laid.”
What does this mean? Plainly its strange that they went from being a punk-hipster magazine illustrating smut to teenagers into calling themselves a legitimate news organisation, going where no news company has gone before. This is a magazine that always listed their postcode as living on the edge, reporting from the front line. Stories such as ‘World’s Scariest Drugs’ to ‘The Suicide Forest in Japan’ helped cement their names as pioneers of their field, stories which we’re happy to admit were controversial and engaging. It was fringe documentary making, divisive social commentary at best. But their rise and their pivot over the last few years, to be honest, has made me feel uncomfortable. Their intentions feel incredibly phony and slightly ill-timed.
Their goal from the beginning was to never take anything seriously; even when they went to a war zone they would cajole and ridicule by way of their questioning and the framing of their story. Their contextual analysis was poor at best and this leads to a horrendous predicament: this way of treating serious political crises from Liberia to North Korea has managed to corrupt an entire generation, leading them to believe that everywhere that is in a crisis is some kooky, wild place where a hipster could walk in with their iPhone, befriend the locals and capture a “real” story, that everyone could become Hunter S. Thompson.
This idea of dysfunctional entertainment, where you render the viewer numb because it’s fun and insane is incredibly dangerous.
I am suspicious at best that a street magazine that started out as basically the millennial version of the National Enquirer, making fun of people and capitalising on the excitement of drugs, sex and music, now wants to assert their moral authority as a major player in the news world. Something feels off to me about Vice, something feels rotten at the core. At some point the Vice audience will change, they will grow up, probably to become cynical corporate assholes and when that happens, will Vice still be relevant? Will anyone care about their forays onto Liberian beaches with poop? Will anyone care about them doing crack in a sewer with a punk band? With news now emerging that the New York Times has been working on a scathing exposé on founder Shane Smith, charting years of sexual harassment inside the organisation, things are about to get ugly for Vice. My advice to the founders? Get your safari helmets on.
Written by founding editor of 52 Insights – Ari Stein