The Froth Estate: VICE’s Cult of Immersion

March 21, 2015   •   By Franҫois Kiper

PARENTS AND CHILDREN of the 1990s will remember the PBS “edutainment” television series The Magic School Bus. For many children of this generation, the animated series melded fact and fantasy to distill the complexity of biological, physical, and chemical processes into a fun, microcosmic world explored by a group of elementary school students.

The Emmy-winning cable news show VICE, now into its third season on HBO, likewise often conflates the distinction between reality and the imagination to entertain and (at least professedly) to instruct its viewers. While not animated, VICE simplifies the confusing, overlapping worlds of domestic and foreign affairs by reducing such vexing problems as terrorism, genocide, and poverty to sensational, 30-minute films unfolding in real time, shot from a direct, firsthand perspective. The show’s cameras breathlessly follow its correspondents — “boots on the ground” in the parlance of series creator, frontman, and Svengali Shane Smith, who has a penchant for overblown militaristic rhetoric — as their unmediated, first person accounts of world-historical issues invariably place them in the thick of perilous circumstances, often amidst whirring gunfire and exploding tear gas canisters. VICE’s swashbuckling, immersive eyewitness mode of staging the news plunges the viewer into the action in the manner of a first person video game. Not surprisingly, then, every VICE episode is an engrossing and exhilarating cinematic experience, which is certainly a testament to the talent of the series’ production staff. Even the most cynically guarded TV viewer would be hard-pressed to refrain from marveling at — and temporarily living vicariously through — the exploits of VICE’s correspondents.

However, if we are all students riding on the adrenaline-fueled magic school bus piloted by Smith, executive producer Bill Maher, and chief creative guru Eddy Moretti, perhaps it’s time to stop and question where they are taking us now that the show is into its third season.

Whereas the Magic School Bus series never purported to represent “hard science,” nor held any pretense to usurping the field of science from scientists, VICE CEO Shane Smith makes no bones about his show being equal to the task of “heavy” and “serious” journalism. Despite the show’s disregard (or ignorance) of fundamental journalistic ethics — such as the hazards of participant observation — Smith unabashedly proclaims that VICE is “blazing a new trail” at the forefront of “a changing of the guard in media.” According to Smith, VICE hit its stride after “having come out of the pond and realizing that instead of talking about sneakers, we could talk about real issues.” Such boasts should give us pause.

VICE is undeniably at the vanguard of a media movement, but looking back at the brand’s origins should concern us about where this movement is headed. VICE began as a slapdash, eclectic lifestyle weekly, and its subsequent forays into visual media, culminating in its current HBO show, have all been informed by the same irreverent “balls-to-the-wall” spirit: VICE’s broadcasts froth with a volatile mixture of keyed-up emotions and unrealistic expectations, like a rental car full of spring breakers. Is this really a viable template for conducting serious journalistic investigations — for analyzing the nuances of world affairs and for teasing out the far-reaching ramifications of complex problems such as global warming and terrorism (each of which occupy two separate episodes this season)?

There is a sense among media cognoscenti that VICE has turned a new leaf in the past two years. Its rapid success in crossing over into conventional media has undoubtedly played a part in forming this impression. The series’s meteoric rise to media ascendancy has also probably muzzled many of the show’s early strident critics, some of whom may be loath to disparage the innovations which, if VICE has its way, will herald the future direction of journalism. After all, in a field that is still in the throes of adapting to the ever-changing possibilities and drawbacks of interactive online and televised content, one cannot take the risk of being branded as a Luddite on the wrong side of progress lightly. (We hardly need to hearken back to La Bruyère to realize that the shortest path to success is “to let people see clearly that it is in their interests to promote yours.”)

It may be tempting to believe that VICE’s brash upstarts somehow earned their journalistic stripes after receiving their comeuppance in a videotaped confrontation with the late David Carr. In it, Carr rightly rebuked Smith’s hubristic presumption that he had reinvented the wheel by personally visiting war-torn Liberia: “Time out. Before you ever went there, we’ve had reporters there reporting on genocide after genocide, just because you put on a fucking safari helmet and looked at some poop doesn’t give you the right to insult what we do.” In fact, VICE’s chief creative officer, Eddy Moretti, has credited this encounter for making VICE’s “journalism … tighter.” And while this sudden coming-of-age story may appeal to our fondness for adages about cutting one’s teeth on the wisdom of elders, it also prompts the question: how can VICE so confidently assume the mantle of being a legitimate news outlet so soon after a chastened Smith conceded to Carr: “I’m not a journalist. I’m not there to report. I’m just talking about … ‘look what I saw’”?

Smith’s frank admission then rings true to the character and mission statement of VICE today. VICE has not made any substantive changes to its “documentary filmmaker” format; on the contrary, the show’s creators have ramped up its armamentarium of “immersive” gonzo techniques with each passing season. It is true that Smith, Moretti, and other VICE executives have increasingly given lip service to the journalistic ideal of balanced and rigorous reporting, but this sop to journalistic craft alone cannot justify VICE’s hyperbolic reportages.

All too often the show remains exclusively focused on drawing viewers in by staging visually lavish, “real time” first person investigations of headline issues. Insofar as VICE episodes provide context, they do so by essentially recycling commonly reported information as if it were new. (Last season’s reports on “The Pacification of Rio,” “The Enemy of My Enemy,” and “The Forgotten War” are a few examples.) This practice of repackaging news stories with dramatic visuals — but without a fresh basis for analysis or understanding — is hardly as “innovative, unique and beautiful” as the brand’s founders would have us believe. VICE’s self-proclaimed supreme objective is to capture a richly immersive, visual news experience. Unfortunately, this overriding emphasis on riveting production regularly comes at the cost of journalistic detachment. As a result, episodes frequently drift into the dubious journalistic realms of tendentiousness and exploitation.

To be sure, the screaming promotion of “real time” live action and melodramatic clashes is unremarkable in the age of “infotainment,” where stories are fodder for the feeding frenzy of 24-hour news cycles. However, unlike CNN, FOX News, MSNBC, and their myriad online and TV epigones, VICE’s mode of firsthand reporting purports to transcend the mind-numbing formula of clamoring demagogues and nonstop pulp newscasts we have all become inured to. Accordingly, VICE packages its “real time,” “on the ground” — but meticulously curated and slickly engineered — “exposés” as the gospel-truth of news, specifically targeting the all-important 18–40-year-old demographic that looks at everything with an overstimulated and jaundiced eye. While these jaded young and middle-aged viewers are unlikely to take what they see on cable news networks with anything more than a grain of salt, TV ratings reveal that they are susceptible to VICE’s cult of Immersion.

A recent special report, anchored by Smith and entitled “Killing Cancer,” demonstrates how VICE’s immersive approach places the show in a moral gray area between journalism’s unflinching commitment to objectivity and the brassy overstatement of advertising. Smith pledges to expose us to the “real time […] revolution happening in the treatment of cancer,” specifying that “we’re no longer talking about treatment, we’re actually talking about a cure.” Naïvely misleading? Perhaps, but for the fact that this wildly optimistic refrain was emblazoned on trailers for VICE’s third season which began airing in January and formed the centerpiece of its off-season promotional “bridge” campaign. Executive producer Bill Maher went so far as to offer this teaser to viewers of his show Real Time: “I’ve previewed the show and I don’t want to give away the details, but wow, everyone will be talking about this episode.” In truth, the research in question is very promising but still only in advanced trials and VICE’s “special report” merely recapitulated information that has been widely reported as early as 2012.

Nevertheless, it is not difficult to understand VICE’s popularity: the show enthralls its audience with the frisson of alarm and impending melodrama. A more pressing question is: what’s at stake? Smith contends that VICE’s content — which Dan Rather felicitously termed “more Jackass than journalism” — is just what “young people, who are … angry, disenfranchised, and … don’t like or trust mainstream media outlets” want. Indeed, a kind of mythomania has developed around VICE, as if Smith and his cohorts are media firebrands ruffling the hoary feathers of the fourth estate by intruding on its fusty, out-of-touch conventions. And yet, VICE’s sensational approach is itself a radically conventional and historically reactionary journalistic method.

More than five decades ago, Andy Warhol illustrated the effects of the unqualified use of immersive visual shots. And while Warhol’s complicated legacy as an iconoclastic cultural critic and a devotee of mechanical reproduction will forever be the subject of debate, what is inarguable is that, in his photographic series Suicides, Car Crash, Electric Chair, and Thirteen Most Wanted, he lays bare the emotional and intellectual emptiness lurking behind sensationalized media reports of human tragedies and cataclysmic events. The lurid, ubiquitous visual reproduction of personal and collective disasters divests these events of their human resonance and ultimately renders them meaninglessly familiar to us. This nadir of complacent familiarity is all that remains after the thrill of each 30-minute VICE episode has subsided. The cumulative effect of VICE’s immersive phantasmagoria is the deadening of affect and the inhibition of intellectual engagement: the lives and conflicts featured on the show are merely grist for the immersion mill, presented to the viewer as temporary sources of wonderment then quickly forgotten as everyday objects of commerce and consumption.

Emboldened by its 2014 Emmy Award and the liberal purse strings of new stakeholders (including News Corp mogul Rupert Murdoch) keen on investing in lucrative media ventures, VICE’s madcap media enterprise is blindly forging ahead with even more grandiose projects and problematic innovations, such as the implementation of virtual reality news machines which will provide “real immersion into a story” by “hacking into the audio and visual systems of your brain” through devices similar to Google Glass. (A trial of this VR news technology during the Millions March protest was more evocative of a grindhouse horror film’s unnerving use of disembodied perspective than journalism.)

A seemingly innocuous segment from the now infamous 2013 finale (entitled “The Hermit Kingdom”) following correspondent Ryan Duffy and a delegation of Harlem Globetrotters on a trip to North Korea for a commemorative basketball game (ostensibly organized by Kim Jong-un to “promote understanding between both countries”) serves as another telling indictment of VICE’s method. At the end of the 30-minute episode, Mr. Duffy’s well-founded pessimism toward his North Korean hosts has eroded to the point that he makes an alarmingly naïve assumption about a heartwarming — and seemingly unplanned — encounter between the Globetrotters and Pyongyang children playing basketball in a local park: “We managed to bridge the divide between our countries, open a dialogue, and make a connection with real people — if only for a moment.” Mr. Duffy’s saccharine reaction reflects a complete absence, “if only for a moment,” of skepticism and critical distance, which is the stock-in-trade of any journalist worth his salt. He fails to even note that this touching incident could have been meticulously orchestrated by DPRK officials, who had trumpeted the health and happiness of the North Korean people during every other part of his visit.

Like no doubt many VICE viewers, Duffy allows himself to be carried away by the emotional thrill of the scene unfolding before his eyes without questioning its authenticity. And if you find Mr. Duffy’s credulous optimism reminiscent of another (albeit fictional) correspondent sent to North Korea on a comparable mission, you’re not mistaken. The news anchor played by James Franco in the film The Interview, David Skylark, is similarly led by the nose through a Potemkin village of opulence and well-being which the DPRK has staged for his arrival. By the end, Franco’s character at least has an epiphany and sees through this contrived mise-en-scène.

Because VICE gives such absolute primacy to direct, first person visuals and places implicit faith in the unacknowledged interlocutors and informants who supply this firsthand access, it is practically impossible for correspondents such as Mr. Duffy to attain the critical remove necessary to provide any meaningful journalistic insight to viewers. Anthropologists and sociologists learned the pitfalls of informant bias decades ago; VICE’s editors and correspondents would do well to heed this lesson. They should also consider the ethical dilemma inherent in immersive journalism, which inevitably hinders correspondents’ ability to separate themselves from the experiences they are capturing. This sacrifice of penetrating journalistic analysis for contextless, vicarious thrill seeking is all the more regrettable because VICE is largely squandering its unparalleled access. The show’s extraordinary reach is a testament to its correspondents’ unique, sustained presence in dangerous “hot zones” which, in this era of downsizing newsrooms and shuttered foreign bureaus, many media organizations avoid. VICE could harness the untapped potential of its platform by wedding its unequaled access to these areas with hard-hitting journalistic projects — if only the series’s creators were willing to swear off the self-indulgent spectacle of immersion.


Franҫois Kiper is a Graduate Center Fellow in Comparative Literature and Critical Theory at the City University of New York.