Of all the illusions that swarm the contemporary media landscape surely the most spectacular is the notion that VICE has anything to do with journalism. In January they announced a new show for their ailing cable channel VICELAND. Called VICE LIVE the nightly two-hour show will be (mostly) live from VICE’s Williamsburg office, and promises to showcase ‘all things VICE.’ Described by Variety as ‘ambitious’ the new format promises to revolutionize television, which had its first live broadcast in…1926.
VICE has been flogging ancient formats to people who should know better since the 1990s. CEO, co-founder and self-anointed ‘Stalin’ Shane Smith is essentially the Jordan Belfort of content production. Describing the construction of VICE as re-applying lipstick to a pig every year until it finally got big, Smith has built a marvelous model of a successful media company, attracting millions of dollars of investment from Disney, Fox and A+E along the way.
You would think, given the hype and the multi-billion dollar valuation, that Smith and VICE might have transformed the media industry. After all, Smith can’t have been awarded a Knight Foundation Innovation Award (‘for bringing fresh perspectives and voices to journalism’), a few Emmys, the Cannes Lions 2016 ‘Media Person of the Year’, two Environmental Media awards and an honorary degree from the University of the Arts London for nothing, right?
Long before the term ‘post-truth’ was being stress tweeted by well-meaning, if historically illiterate liberals, VICE, led by Smith, was busy knocking down the walls between editorial and advertising. As Daniel Voshart points out on his invaluable blog, VICE.com has published thousands of stories like this one: ‘Budweiser Has Finally Become the Most American Thing Ever’. It doesn’t say it’s a press release but does it really need to? This all seems harmless enough until you learn that America has over six working PR professionals for every working journalist. VICE and Smith helped write that story. Everyone else is writing checks.
VICE has been influential rather than original. For instance, if you want to know why a strong quarter of all online content aimed at millennials reads as if it was written by somebody who spent their formative years locked alone in a room with the complete works of Hunter S. Thompson and a big bag of Big Bud for company, consider another VICE co-founder, Gavin McInnes and his advice on the Canadaland podcast for writers to:
‘Write a letter to your brother and take out the inside jokes. Write all caps and write things like “oookkkkaaay?”’
Yet VICE’s influence still doesn’t explain why it is worth so much money. The altogether more esoteric and hard to pin down explanation is that VICE, for a long time, was the coolest media company in the world. Cool in this case meant press ganging half a generation of ambitious, fashion-conscious, city-dwelling, twenty-something writers, editors and filmmakers into wasting their time and talents making Shane Smith the world’s richest Canadian.
For a time though VICE was cool. It was transgressive. It had a cocksure fuck-you-buddy attitude, a taste for filthy gross out stunts and a cheeky boys club nihilism that perfectly matched the emergent hipsterdom of early 2000s urban life. VICE was fascinated by North Korea at the exact moment Team America: World Police had made this nightmare state the ‘weird’ country of choice for every irony bro in the world.
North Korea and VICE were perfect bedfellows; a potemkin country where a ruthless leadership cult bullies starving peasants into crying at state funerals and a potemkin media company where a ruthless leadership cult bullies starving freelancers into writing about masturbation. The only difference is that Kim Jong-un is yet to give the prestigious MacTaggart Lecture at the Edinburgh International TV Festival, unlike Smith.
According to Smith, VICE has a ‘cultural revolution’ every few years to keep things fresh. Even though cool still broods over the young like a raincloud, transgression has no place in a media environment that is, whether on the left or the right, addicted to differing interpretations of identity grievance outrages. As a result VICE replaced coolness (ironic detachment) with wokeness (passionate engagement). They no longer try to ‘baffle the paradigm’ as Roland Barthes once put it. VICE.com is part of the paradigm: another dreary enforcer of online norms that most right-thinking people abide by, even if half of them secretly hate doing so.
As fun as reading endless, unlettered ‘takes’ by slow-brained activists who are angry about video games is, it does not seem to have done much good for VICE. In 2017 teens famously ranked VICE Media the second least cool in a study of 122 brands. Millennials in the same survey ranked VICE Media ‘less awesome’ than the Sunglass Hut and those badasses over at The Wall Street Journal.
Without the protective enamel of cool, VICE looks a lot more chicken than peacock right now. Sex scandals and recent job cuts have only added to the sense of crisis surrounding the company. As a devastating feature in New York magazine revealed last year, Smith had aggressively pitched VICE Media to Rupert Murdoch and Disney as the only company that could get inside the heads of millennials and Gen-Z and sell them Budweiser.
The great symbol of VICE’s rise was the exclusive, coveted VICE ring. This small metal band was given to the select group of editors and writers at the top of the company. It is tempting to imagine that a grandchild of one of them will, in the distant future, dig one of these rings out of the back of a dusty cupboard.
‘Grandpa,’ the kid will ask, ‘what’s VICE?’