The Vice Guide to Serious Journalism: How a DIY Drug Mag Became Serious Business for HBO

All grown up, with no place for blow

Shane Smith, in the thick of it for VICE (Vice/HBO)
Shane Smith, in the thick of it for VICE (Vice/HBO)

When Shane Smith, one of the founders of Vice Media, pitched a television show to MTV in 2010, it seemed unimaginable that the company that came out of Vice magazine could establish itself as a respected informational source about, well, anything (other than how to decorate your heroin stash). And yet the network bit, and The Vice Guide to Everything ran for eight episodes, balancing ridiculous segments against heavier fare.

With its latest television program, VICE, which premieres next Friday, the media company is once again trying its hand at American television. Not just television. HBO. And this time, it’s not trading on its nihilistic reputation. Instead, it’s asking audiences to trust in its international-relations acumen. It wants to be taken seriously. Or at least as seriously as it takes itself.

“This is the grown-up, smarter, more erudite version of Vice,” Eddy Moretti, Vice Media’s executive creative director (and one of the producers of VICE), told Off the Record. In addition to being more earnest than its predecessor, Mr. Moretti said, this show is intensely researched.

Like Vanguard but shorter and with more cursing, VICE features three correspondents whose job it is to “expose the absurdities of the modern condition”: Mr. Smith, Dos & Don’ts book editor Thomas Morton and a former intern named Ryan Duffy.

For the show’s first season, the trio treks deep into dangerous international terrain, with a special focus on the Middle East, India and the North Korea/Thailand/China region. (We hear that if HBO gives them a second season, they’ll cover domestic terrors as well.)

“News from the Edge” is the slogan that HBO has given VICE, which makes one wonder what counts as “news” these days. VICE goes to dangerous locales and puts its correspondents in inhospitable situations, but it is less current-affairs journalism than novelty of access.

Indeed, immersion and danger are the points of the show, facts that the hosts allude to throughout the segments. “The world is changing,” Mr. Smith intones in the credit sequence. “No one knows where it’s going. But we’ll be there.” It’s the ultimate humblebrag.

Bill Maher, the only non-Vice executive producer of the show—the other two are Mr. Smith and another Vice Media co-founder, Suroosh Alvi—is a natural fit to back the program, as his own off-color TV show is to politics what the Vice brand is to traditional reporting. Fareed Zakaria, who is a consultant on VICE, is a much stranger bedfellow. The fact that a CNN host would be involved in Shane Smith’s project suggests the media company is making a prime-time play for legitimacy with VICE.

Mr. Moretti stopped just short of calling VICE a “news” program—but that may be semantic. “I think it’s a documentary show,” said Mr. Moretti. “News, to me, is everything that happened in a day, from the weather to the president visiting Israel to, you know, a cat in a tree.”

It’s a potato/potahto situation: it’s not news in the timely sense, and yet meeting Taliban leaders is newsworthy. And in recent months, the media company has gotten used to finding itself in the news cycle.

With stunts like sending Dennis Rodman and the Harlem Globetrotters to North Korea (where “The Worm” became the first American to meet Kim Jong-un) and the accidental leaking of John McAfee’s whereabouts in Guatemala through a photographer’s metadata, Vice Media has become a newsmaker—if not a newsbreaker.

The Vice Guide to Serious Journalism: How a DIY Drug Mag Became Serious Business for HBO