Vice News Tonight is the newscast we want, not the one we need

October 17, 2016
VICE News Tonight correspondent Arielle Duhaime-Ross reporting from Nunavut

Vice co-founder Shane Smith’s interview with John Boehner, which aired last Tuesday on Vice News Tonight, opens with b-roll footage of the former House Speaker mowing his lawn, then pensively smoking a cigarette as he peers into the distance. It’s the portrait of a suburban dad in retirement. It also serves as a reminder of the onetime tagline of Vice’s weekly HBO program, an ethos it now hopes to adapt to a daily format: The world is changing

The corollary to that statement—And what does it all mean?—is one of Vice’s implicit editorial missions with its new show. That is, at least if Smith’s line of questioning is any indication. Boehner begins the interview by scoffing at those seeking his political analysis as an elder statesman: “People think that I can explain this to them? Ha!” But Smith will not be denied.

When Boehner mentions Bernie Sanders’s popularity, Smith responds, “Why did that happen, though?”

On the longtime congressman’s support of Donald Trump, despite the candidate not being conservative: “What does that mean?”

When Boehner adds that the US is not in a sane electoral cycle: “What cycle are we in now?” And then, seconds later: “And what’s going to happen?”

A final attempt, after Boehner throws his hands up over what the hell has happened to American politics: “And what did happen?” 

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No one knows yet—and certainly not Vice News Tonight viewers after watching the segment. But hey: We got to see Boehner in his element, first wearing above-the-knee shorts, then popping a bottle of red wine and grunting, “There you go.” It was also oddly satisfying to watch a former Republican leader, unshackled from day-to-day politics, stare into the camera and unapologetically explain his support for Trump.

The scene gets to the essence of Vice News Tonight: At times shallow or rife with cliché, it is ultimately satisfying. The journalism is not groundbreaking. But like the company’s other offerings, the weeknight HBO program presents more compelling storytelling than many of its competitors. If that stylized interpretation of news ultimately draws more interest to current events, then it will ultimately be a worthwhile addition to a media and public all grappling with the same set of perplexing questions.

Related: Vice shows how not to treat freelancers

Addition is a key word here. Nightly news and cable shows present themselves as comprehensive reports: A well-coiffed suit sits behind a desk and authoritatively directs traffic between segments. It’s a model meant to convey what you need to know when you arrive home from work each evening. Vice News Tonight is not that, and it shouldn’t try to be. 

The HBO show is a decentralized program with no host, just a verbal narrator. Each episode begins with a quick-hit rundown of global events and a then a handful of feature-y snapshots of the world, strung together with slick graphics and music.

The form not only relinquishes the institutional Voice of God that younger audiences seem more likely to distrust, but also suggests an understanding of how such viewers are likely to tune in. They’ve already been following the news of the day, all day; Vice News Tonight is a tasty supplement, fit for winding down at the end of the night, binging on weekends, or periodically tuning in for 25-or-so minutes of nonfiction video. Indeed, it is already an exceedingly watchable program. 

The only wrinkle is that Vice News must compress its trademark gonzo-lite reporting into segments usually lasting five minutes or less. The first week saw Vice correspondents watching the second presidential debate with Glenn Beck; following a Filipino photographer documenting anti-drug crackdowns under the country’s new regime; visiting a Vermont town where the debate over Syrian refugees has become a major issue; embedding with fighters in Ukraine; and reflecting with Afghan villagers on the past 15 years of American nation-building. Even when such stories failed to offer new information or analysis—which was often—they did add value with Vice’s characteristically sleek visuals and high production value. 

The program is at its best when it stays true to the company’s smashmouth instincts. A feature on prison strikes in Alabama featured an inmate interviewed on a contraband phone. A quick hit on Desert Trip—essentially a Lollapalooza for Baby Boomers—described the festival as “a resounding success for anyone still nostalgic for a time when white dudes enjoyed a near-monopolistic domination of pop culture.” On Thursday, the show even attempted to make an objectively boring subject, the North Carolina state board of elections, appear interesting by highlighting awkward interactions between local officials of opposing parties. Find me a journalist who can fault Vice for this attempt at the impossible. 

There are some downsides to the show’s format, as there are with Vice’s presentation in general. First-person reporting naturally limits the scope of individual stories, and that effect is only amplified in visual media. The production style also lends subjects a sort of Brooklyn chic. Take its profile of Breitbart writer and alt-right provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos. Though the piece gives many examples of why Yiannopoulos is “the world’s biggest asshole”—where’s PolitiFact when you need it?—its framing ultimately rewards him with a veneer of humor and charisma.

Related: Vice sends memo in response to CJR freelancer report

A reliance on features also raises practical and philosophical questions for a daily news program. The Wednesday show, shorter than its counterparts at just over 20 minutes long, included a nearly four-minute recounting of how legendary rock promoter Shep Gordon, who’s out with a new book, branded Alice Cooper’s music in the ’70s. That’s certainly a Vice story, though why it was on the nightly HBO program is less clear.

No one needs another nightly video recap of current events, though some connection to the news is of course necessary to accomplish its editorial mission. Vice largely succeeded in finding that balance over its first week on HBO. The larger question it faces going forward is not whether it can maintain that balance to show viewers how the world is changing, but whether it can go a step beyond and explain what that change means. 

David Uberti is a writer in New York. He was previously a media reporter for Gizmodo Media Group and a staff writer for CJR. Follow him on Twitter @DavidUberti.