If Vice, the edgy, fast-expanding media empire that earlier this month raised $500 million in venture capital financing, wants to be the world’s largest network for young people, it needs to move beyond its adolescent roots, embrace professionalism, and ensure that its reporting is as reliably accurate as it is sensational.
I am 27 years-old. I am an American. I believe that America’s best days are ahead of it, and I lead an organization called the Millennial Trains Project (MTP).
MTP orchestrates crowdfunded train journeys for diverse groups of young innovators in search of the New American Dream.
VICE DOESN’T GET JOURNALISM
Recently, MTP was the subject of a misleading, error-laden feature written by VICE that has, ironically, spurred a groundswell of support for the way we are using purposeful travel to support next-generation leadership development, community engagement, and trans-regional knowledge exchange.
Despite the fact that more than half of the participants on our recently-concluded journey were people of color who crowdfunded their way on board, VICE painted our community as rich, white, and entitled “neo-colonialists” bent on forcing our will onto impoverished communities like Detroit, a place we have never been.
Over the course of ten days, MTP journeys provide opportunities for personal development and shared discovery through on-train seminars led by distinguished mentors, workshops with local leaders, and participant-led projects in MTP communities. These projects focus on important issues such as racial healing, education reform, entrepreneurship, poetry, spirituality, sustainable transportation, the future of food, and creative placemaking.
Our goal is to enable passengers and virtual audiences to identify, evaluate, and explore emerging opportunities and challenges in communities where our trains stop while advancing a project that benefits, serves, and inspires others.
As an alternative to the sort of trans-regional knowledge exchange and collaboration championed by MTP, the Vice article bizarrely encourages local communities to resist outside ideas and resources in favor of small-scale subsistence efforts.
I understand that Vice has a hard-earned “Bad Boy” reputation to uphold, and I admit that I half-expected it to obscure the intentions of our community.
And yet, the increasing extent to which Vice has been masquerading as an intelligent, reliable source of information (particularly via its reporting on foreign conflict zones) gave me some hope that it could be counted on to tell it like it is.
To my disappointment, Vice published numerous falsehoods to support a sensationally far-fetched portrayal of our community as modern-day colonists.
For instance, saying that our participants were mostly white, when they were mostly people of color, and writing an extended critique of how MTP failed to properly engage with residents of Detroit, when our train never even went to Detroit.
The extent to which Vice cherry-picked and obscured the remarks of the lone MTP participant it interviewed for the article (whose name Vice misspelled) was galling.
Her response says it all.
The most interesting part of Vice’s misleading article is the comments section, in which MTP alumni, residents of cities with which we have engaged, and complete strangers rallied against the article’s many errors and mischaracterizations.
Unfortunately, Vice’s business model relies on content that ruffles feathers.
Writing outlandish articles with click-bait headlines boosts engagement, makes Vice’s content more sellable to advertisers, and allows it to justify higher valuations to investors.
Fact-checking, interviewing multiple sources, having a sense of responsibility to readers beyond making them wriggle with uniformed, adolescent delight – these are a few basic qualities of good journalism that VICE lacks and must bolster among its editors if it wants to be taken seriously as the world’s leading platform for young people.
VICE DOESN’T GET MILLENNIALS
At its core, Vice is a youth-oriented publication that appeals to our adolescence at the expense of our idealism by profiling Millennials at our most vulnerable moments.
Whether it be defaulting on student loans, experimenting with drugs, struggling to get a job, or just generally acting stupid – Vice excels at depicting Millennials as a lost cause.
But our generation is the bread-and-butter of Vice’s advertising sales.
The very un-cool irony of it all is that the jaded influencers running Vice are enriching themselves by undermining the public perception (and self-perception) of their core readership demographic: Millennials.
What Vice doesn’t get about our generation is that, despite the challenges we face, we are more optimistic that other generations and care more about living lives that connect with our deepest sense of purpose.
We are not a lost cause. We are the largest, most diverse, and most educated generation in American history, and we have a lot to offer.
VICE DOESN’T GET WHAT IT MEANS TO BE COURAGEOUS
The simple truth is that Vice does not believe in us.
Even when its content is peppered with truth, it exists above all else to shock us, and then sell our shocked eyeballs to its corporate advertisers.
Vice portrays America as a wasteland of corporate greed and impenetrable inequality, but (outside of the art world) shies away from reporting on the expansive efforts being made to overcome the negative inertia of our society’s persistent failures. It not only neglects to report on these examples in a straightforward way, it actively obscures them through the prism of its jaded worldview.
Vice’s portrayal of foreign cultures is similarly biased. It is gritty. It is gutsy. It gives the impression of going deeper than most would dare.
And it makes sense because ultimately the Vice brand promise is that it is more daring than other media companies.
But daring action is only admirable when compelled by virtuous motivations, such as telling the truth, protecting the vulnerable, exposing wrongdoing, or inspiring progress.
By contrast, daring action compelled by vice and cynicism is mere drunkenness.
With Vice, the challenge is always this: to parse when it is reaching for gritty virtue, and when it is just on another one of its blustering benders.
To be fair, Hemingway was often inebriated, and maybe that is what Smith is trying to say – that Vice is like a sloshed Hemingway, spinning heroic yarns and exaggerated fish tales to fill its empty heart: elaborately mythologizing itself to the brink of suicide.
Or maybe that’s just me reading between the lines.
Either way, if Vice wants to be the world’s leading platform for young people, it needs to take its responsibility for accurate reporting more seriously.
If Vice would dare to dedicate even a fraction of what it earns from selling our shocked eyeballs to corporate advertisers toward accurate reporting on positive, Millennial-led efforts, we would all be better off.