Vanilla Vice

Vice’s new HBO show is a brilliant addition to its empire—and a mediocre addition to journalism.

Bhaskar Sunkara

Vice’s Shane Smith (pictured here in Pakistan) has been voicing ‘the anger of a generation’ since 1994. (Photo by VICE Productions)

Growing up in New York’s Westchester County, I had plenty of opportunity to observe the upper-middle-class male and the blind confidence that only centuries of untrammeled privilege could instill. No topic is out of bounds, no ignorance is pled. Abortion: I have an opinion.” Affirmative action: I have a solution.” Afghanistan: There’s an easy way.”

Instead of expanding the horizons of their viewers, Vice plays to their preconceptions—not so much misinforming them as giving them the mistaken impression that they have been informed.

A new HBO show created by Vice—whose website, full disclosure, I write for regularly — is a pristine cultural artifact of this milieu, and for that reason is both infuriating and weirdly enticing. The opening credits of the first 10 episodes, which aired late last spring, make no secret of the series’ narrow vantage point: This is the world through our eyes. This is the world of Vice.”

The pilot episode visits child soldiers in both the Philippines and Afghanistan. Wearing an old T-shirt and jeans, the show’s host, Vice co-founder Shane Smith casually provides some: 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.”

This erroneous (if common) conflation of the September 11 terrorist attacks with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq isn’t just imperialist ideology at play. It’s not even a simplification for the sake of mass appeal. Smith appears to really be that glibly ignorant. It’s that mix of childlike naiveté and confidence that I found captivating.

Smith forges on in that mode with statements like: Now, not a lot of people know the Philippines borrowed our Constitution when they were setting up their current political system, which is great except for the fact that American politics has become highly contentious and intensely partisan — but in the Philippines, they’re taking this to a whole new level.” There’s no mention, of course, that the Philippines’ adoption of an American-style constitution might have more to do with a brutal and prolonged U.S. occupation than a profound respect for the Founding Fathers.

Even in its early days, Vice had its sights on things more important than facts. For all its counter-cultural trappings—Vice first emerged in 1994 as an alternative rag called the Voice of Montreal—the platform was built to transform into the carefully managed corporate enterprise it is today. Smith, whom the New York Times calls a tattooed hustler [who oversees] a mini media empire,” and his fellow Vice lords may not know much about geopolitics, but they know how to bring in revenue and investment. From a government-funded Montreal community magazine to a conglomerate with hundreds of employees, worth perhaps a billion dollars, they’re succeeding financially where traditional corporate journalism is failing.

That success has inspired derision from figures like the Times’ David Carr, who describes Smith’s reporting on Liberia as “[putting] on a fucking safari helmet and looking at some poop.” But news, especially cable news, has long been drifting into entertainment and editorializing. After all, these modes are cheaper to finance than the foreign news bureaus that substantive reporting purists like Carr prefer.

Vice didn’t ruin the old model; it’s just building something on the new terrain — material its audience wants to consume. But the results seem like a blown opportunity: large budgets, creative freedom, and access to important people and places without a coherent sense of purpose or even the rudiments of background research. Instead of expanding the horizons of their viewers, Vice plays to their preconceptions — not so much misinforming them as giving them the mistaken impression that they have been informed.

The results are a far cry from Smith’s supremely arrogant wish to be the voice of the present conjuncture: CNN was made by the Gulf War. I think the economic crisis will prove to be our Gulf War. It is making young people very angry and we want to be the voice of that anger,” he told the Guardian earlier this year.

But the revolution won’t find its outlet through a multinational corporation — not that this will actually disappoint the Vice crew. Renewed for a lucrative 12-episode second season, the series has already achieved Smith’s real aims. No doubt Vice will be savvy enough to have some Revolutionary Insurrection Dos and DON’Ts” to profit from when the anger he touts reaches its limit, as well.

Bhaskar Sunkara is the founding editor of Jacobin magazine. Follow him on Twitter: @sunraysunray.
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