When Vice Media launched its HBO newsmagazine series in 2013, it was received with a fair amount of skepticism by media elites. In The New York Times, Mike Hale memorably summed up the first episode as “journalism at the intersection of shallow and gullible, where they meet, high-five, and compare tattoos.” His analysis was blistering, well argued, funny, and in the hindsight of three seasons of Vice, completely wrong.
Critics of the news brand—and there are a lot of them—can’t be faulted for viewing the premiere season with a bit of cynicism. Even in its modern hard news big-boy incarnation, Vice Media invites plenty of legitimate gripes. The splashy, enterprise-wide hipster-chic aesthetic harkens back to the culture jamming days of Adbusters, which is particularly dated and silly given that Vice Media is a corporate organization as modern and mainstream as anything else. Its magazine-of-origin was co-founded by human cyst Gavin McInnes (long separated from the company). Bill Maher executive produces the HBO show, and his increasingly frequent bouts of David Mamet-style contrarianism have been weird enough to make even his most liberal disciples cringe. It has the veneer of investigative reporting when it’s more of an explainer. They act like jackasses at harmless events.
But on substance, credit is due where credit is due. Without quite saying so, Hale’s New York Times review and others like it seemed to hint that host and correspondent Shane Smith was exploiting or cheapening the stories about child suicide bombers and Filipino assassination victims his docu-series reported on in brief on-location segments. That’s just not the case. Smith was and continues to sensationalize the hell out of them, sure, but that’s key to what makes Vice valuable to a lot of viewers who are being introduced to the topics he and his correspondents cover. Smith’s show trades in the sort of personal, visual, visceral world-update storytelling serious topics like Haitian reconstruction efforts or Alabama’s post-HB 56 economic troubles aren’t often otherwise awarded, especially not in short or easily digestible packages. Plenty of stories happen where the camera phones aren’t, and they need a little shock and awe to be heard by a wide audience. Gimmicky as it is for Thomas Morton to hobble around SWAT hostage scenarios or gawk at military equipment at a trade show in order to summarize problems with National Defense Authorization Act’s 1033 Program, for example, there’s no denying its efficiency as advocacy journalism and a primer to a wider issue.
In an hour-long special report like Fixing The System though, the expectations are higher, especially when the topic is as convoluted and controversial as America’s exploding incarceration crisis. In the summer of 2015, President Barack Obama became the first sitting commander-in-chief to visit a federal penitentiary, a trip documented by Vice and released with additional interviews with law enforcement officials and inmate testimonies. Understandably, teaser trailers for the special have focused largely on Obama’s sit-down conversation opposite inmates, but viewers expecting any sort of executive mea culpa for the undeniably broken system or a nitty-gritty plan to address its inhumane culture of violence shouldn’t get their hopes up. Instead, most of the focus is spent on where there’s bipartisan agreement: “Congress blew it” by enacting mandatory minimum sentences by drug type and quantity (as expressed by Judge John Gleeson), minorities are disproportionately policed, and released felons require better means to reintegrate with society in order to avoid being locked up again.
It’s an important discussion to be had in the nation holding 25 percent of the world’s inmates, an $80 billion a year boondoggle that’s long held back communities of color. More important than anything the president says, though, is what he hears; it’s cathartic to watch someone with real power listen to the impact the justice system’s inadequacies has had on prisoners’ families. In an especially enlightening moment, inmate David Shaw explains the Kafkaesque set of circumstances that led him to plead guilty to a crime he supposedly committed while already incarcerated for an unrelated charge.
Dating back to the anti-drug hysteria that sprang from college basketball star Len Bias’ cocaine death, Smith provides a serviceable overview of how specific plea bargain practices and enforcement discrepancies led to a 700 percent increase in incarceration from 1970 to today. While Obama’s expressions of empathy and measured calls for reform are important symbolically, it’s the interviews with former Attorney General Eric Holder, officers, and legal experts that provide the most frank substance. “Whites and blacks have been known to carry narcotics at the exact same rate,” says retired Baltimore police sergeant Michael Wood. “So, if we went around riling through pockets whenever we wanted in a white neighborhood, I’m sure we’d find a lot of things. But we don’t do that. We only do that in these neighborhoods.” Ending The Drug War perhaps would have been a better title for the special, given that some of the most damning issues facing law enforcement and prisons—punitive mind-shattering solitary confinement, the militarization of police, the financial privatization of the system, the criminalization of mental illness, inherent racial bias, protection from rape and beatings, misbehaving prison staff—are barely touched.
It’s certainly not on Vice’s shoulders to address every aspect of the crisis, and to its credit, it’s using all of its platforms to try. But for all the time spent on emotional and tearful testimonies from families, it’s not unreasonable to expect a more comprehensive guide for its flagship special on the topic. Considering just how expansive Vice’s media empire has become, and how much bigger it’s going to be, comprehensiveness is a practice it should start getting used to.