In a new Baffler article, writer Anne Elizabeth Moore goes into Vice Media, recounting the history of the 19-year-old publication, and how it shifted from a hipster frat-boy mess of jokes and “truthtelling” to a Rupert Murdoch-approved (he has a five percent stake in the company), big media-feeding, empire of cool aimed at millennials. As Vice has become a mainstream media company, it’s been awkwardly riding the line between status quo-questioning provocateurs and professionals running a media empire — as we detailed when they responded to the controversy over the female-writer-suicide fashion spread, which they eventually took down and apologized for, like grown-ups.
But as Moore writes, the ethos of Vice Media is rooted in easy sexism and racism: “Vice is, however, ‘edgy’ as a marketing ploy, following an utterly predictable strategy to afford loud, mostly white, dudes to act out at will, to acclaim but little consequence.” That anti-humanity goes hand-in-hand with Murdoch’s reign, as detailed in the gross tabloid violations and phone hacking that embroiled News of the World in scandal and its eventual closing.
But Vice has been doing OK; it is a $400 million company with lovely offices situated in Williamsburg. Brands will pay to be associated with Vice’s cred with hipster millennials, the scariest generation, who apparently hate all of old media, from HBO and MTV to UFC and Intel.
With edginess and something like respectability come Vice’s forays into journalism, a recent concept for the company, which is notable for its gonzo journeys to places like North Korea, where Dennis Rodman met Kim Jong-Un, and its ongoing attempt to report on war zones by giving correspondents Google Glass and seeing what happens. For Moore, Vice’s practices sidestep “the core foundations of journalism,” as the work is sloppy, nonsensical, and inaccurate, while also in thrall to the brands that keep Vice’s work alive.
Yet Vice’s Shane Smith, the founder and CEO, takes a particularly profane approach to complaints about Vice’s journeys abroad. In an interview with The Guardian, he says, “Dialogue always works. That’s what news is. And we’re going to show you what’s going on … every other news agency in the world would’ve fucking love to have that footage.”
The cushiness between Vice and brands may not seem like news now that everyone knows everything and is prematurely jaded, but Moore outlines, thoroughly, how toxic the relationship between Vice and respectability can be, since there’s a slew of money-making schemes and people to denigrate along the way. Perhaps it’s safe to think, when there’s something good to look at on Vice’s website or show (like, really, anything written by Molly Crabapple, an artist and journalist who I’m not sure would’ve gotten the same kind of break from other media outlets), that going to Vice is like going to Urban Outfitters, where youth culture, formerly a form of rebellion, is depending on your dollars, cents, eyes, and somewhat tacit approval — you’re there, aren’t you? — of a culture that’s detrimental to a lot of people who aren’t Shane Smith.