As has been widely reported, Vice is in North Korea with Dennis Rodman now on what has been billed as some sort of pseudo-diplomatic mission, but which has instead turned into a parade of gross declarations of friendship for the horrifically oppressive regime on Rodman’s part, and disgusting tweets about getting hammered with Kim Jong Un from Vice staffer Jason Mojica. It’s worth noting that this isn’t just one of Vice’s usual video stunts. It’s an episode that the company is shooting for its HBO news magazine series. And that they’re doing something like this isn’t particularly surprising.
This summer at the Television Critics Association press tour, I asked Vice’s Shane Smith about the way they were branding the show, which included things like introducing segments by offering up as analysis of the Kashmir conflict “India and Pakistan fucking hate each other,” and about what level of information they expected their audience to have. His answer didn’t reveal a keen awareness of the difference between starting broad and getting more detailed, and the problems with presenting news about the world beyond the United States in a reductive tone that smacks more of cultural tourism than insight.
“They do fucking hate each other, and they’ve hated each other for quite some time,” he told me. “So, you know, we get into why, which is because of partition and Kashmir. But also it goes to a very complex point of its water now. Water is a huge issue in Pakistan. They’re saying that ‘India’s taking our water.’ Water is maybe the main issue in India right now. Now, that’s a very complex point to get to, but you have to start sort of broad and say, ‘They hate each other. This is why they hate each other.’”
I’m absolutely a believer in trying to bring new audiences in to international news, and into news at all. But to have any sort of integrity, your priority in that mission has to be the story itself. Speaking the same language as your target audience may be an important skill set to bring to the mission. But the point is less that you want to meet them where they’re at than to convince them to come along to where you are. And if using that language and those values—including the idea that it’s transgressive and cool to get drunk with and fed by a dictator who is starving his own people to death—take over what you’re trying to communicate about water rights in Pakistan or the horrendous repressiveness of the North Korean regime, you probably need to slow your role and reconsider what you’re doing. If this was some sort of Increasingly Poor Decisions Of Todd Margaret-style fiction, I could see it as a Girls-level satire of the grotesque privilege and oblivious of First World tourists in the Third World. But Vice and Rodman are actually doing these things. And I’m curious how HBO is going to try to convince audiences that this is really a fresh, edgy take on news reporting, if only for the despair factor.