Will HBO's 'Vice' Take the Road Much Traveled?

I've been a fan of Shane Smith and his VICE crew ever since their bizarro tour of North Korea, which exposed the sheer madness of the regime even within the confines of an official visit. Now VICE has a cable show, which premieres Friday night on HBO. I have no doubt it will succeed. But it may well fall short of its journalistic potential, because as funky as VICE can be at times, its political outlook is often standard mainstream-media left.

Take a look at the VICE website today--the day of the premiere, when the editors must have known there would be a lot of eyeballs on the site--and you'll see what I mean. This morning's front page included an Apr. 3 story by Lucy Steigerwald applauding the AP's decision to drop "illegal immigrant" from the lexicon that includes a knock on conservatives for equating "murder, rape, theft, or even private trespassing with illegal immigration."

An Apr. 4 story by Peter Rugh warns: "Corporate-Run Hospitals Could Be the Death of You." Rugh gives no attention to the problems of corruption, greed, and malpractice at public-run, not-for-profit hospitals, such as the University of Illinois at Chicago, which suffered a series of scandals in recent years. Rugh's answer to the problem is depressingly familiar: tax Wall Street to raise money for cash-strapped not-for-profit hospitals.

Some in the mainstream media have celebrated VICE, with NPR wondering whether it is "the future of media" and praising Smith for making the transition from the field to the boardroom: "He starts to sound like the editor-in-chief of an august publication." VICE wins with long-form reporting aimed at an 18-to-24 demographic--deep content, narrow audience--but earns critical praise, one suspects, because at least some fellow journalists like its anti-conservative bent. (Though the New York Times recently mocked VICE, which is a point in VICE's favor.)

VICE is capable of great, nonpartisan, and original work that looks beyond propaganda to the disturbing--and entertaining--reality beyond the headlines, such as a recent film on Hezbollah's "resistance tourism." ("A mix of heavy vibes and finger-lickin' fun," says VICE's Ryan Duffy.) But sometimes the dogma is apparently just too tempting: another series, "Resistance in the West Bank," takes Palestinians' anti-Israel rhetoric at face value.

From a conservative perspective, VICE has the same problem as Green Day--not, as left-wing critics might have it, that they've been tamed by corporate embrace and commercial success, but rather that they are no longer as "alternative" as they were (and think they are). Too often, they take great topics and cheapen them by adopting what are by now conventional left-wing political postures, alienating half their potential audience in the process.

I'm sure we in the conservative movement deserve some of the same criticism, and worse. Our typical sin is to start, too often, with the political message and place the creative process second, whether in art or journalism. Andrew Breitbart understood that--which is why the original video he and I shot about Occupy LA was more whimsical than ideological. VICE has the chance to set a new standard for left and right. Will it? We'll see.

VICE airs Friday, April 5 at 11 p.m. EDT.



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