WASHINGTON – Vice is a brash Brooklyn-based magazine and international media company, but mostly it’s a brand of thinking and marketing that has extended itself over the past decade to a popular website and YouTube channel. With bureaus around the world, Vice makes as much news as it reports: A recent foray involved the Vice crew bringing Dennis Rodman to North Korea to meet with Kim Jong Un. There’s nothing Vice won’t cover — culture, news, war, sex, music, drugs — and it seems to do just fine without any assistance from the rules of old journalism.
And yet it wants a piece of that, too. “Vice,” a fast and loose newsmagazine show that debuted on HBO on April 5, shoehorns the company’s sense of swagger into something that looks like traditional TV, setting out for the vast Third World to cover “the absurdity of the human condition.” It’s an exchange of fluids between old media and new.
“Vice” seeks to legitimize the Vice name for HBO viewers who have never heard of it. By pure market value, Vice should have already become the Rolling Stone of its era, but many potential readers have learned that the Vice voice can be off-putting.
Here, that voice sounds more mature. Hosted by Vice chief executive Shane Smith, “Vice” travels to the world’s most contentious and violent hot spots, mainly so that Smith or another correspondent can note that such places are indeed contentious and violent.
This is broadcast journalism for those who have not typically paid attention to foreign news and aren’t at all squeamish about seeing footage of war carnage that other networks might edit out as a matter of taste. In the first episode, Smith heads to Afghanistan to report a story about boys recruited by the Taliban to act as suicide bombers. “Vice” is a place to see all those severed hands and heads and other images we’ve typically been spared.
“Vice” prides itself on an adventurous sense of naivete, figuring that the best stories are the ones where it puts its correspondents — who, judging from two episodes, all seem to be white, male, tattooed, horn-rimmed and whiskered — at a relative amount of risk. The problem here isn’t objectivity, which is itself an outdated way to describe fairness in reporting; the problem is that “Vice” seems insufficiently skeptical, favoring outrage and shock over context and depth. It is journo-tourism for hipsters, with an attitude that sometimes makes it difficult to appreciate the value of the stories being told.
And there is value here. Correspondent Thomas Morton travels to Laos to interview young women who escaped North Korea and are now in danger, we are told, of being forced into the sex trade. The reporter accompanies a South Korean church pastor who hires a boat to sneak the refugees across the Mekong River into Thailand. Everyone here is at risk of arrest or worse and, as the boat moves across the river in total darkness, it’s a moment that is both informative and thrilling.
“Vice” seems to be in search of some sweet spot between “60 Minutes” and “Jackass,” and there’s enough here to prove that such a spot may exist. The concept could work, especially if Smith and his correspondents were more inclined to point the cameras away from themselves.