Can Vice Make News Hip?

It's not much of an exaggeration to say that the mainstream media thoroughly loathes Vice, the punk magazine turned global video empire.

The company, which has shot to fame on the back of documentary video segments about the weird, the violent, and the bizarre, has managed to succeed where its mainstream rivals have failed spectacularly: creating news video packages that both appeal to and entertain young people. In doing so, they've brought what might be described as a unique sensibility to online news: distinctly subjective, featuring hand-held cameras, typically laced with profanity, often featuring drug use, in little-known corners of the world. A selection of their recent documentary offerings include "Life as a Truck Stop Stripper" and "Heroin Holiday in the Czech Republic," but also extensive coverage of both the crisis in Crimea and the protest movement in Venezuela.

Vice's video offerings have long had a news bent to them, providing jaundiced, often very funny dispatches on themes loosely tied to current events. Now, the company is doubling down on that sensibility and has launched a news vertical, titled, you guessed it, Vice News. But through a partnership with HBO -- in addition to a slew of other channels -- Vice has extended its reach beyond the web and has established its bona fides as a global media player capable of competing against bigger outlets with deeper experience in video journalism -- think CNN, al Jazeera, MSNBC, etc.

That partnership is perhaps best known for bringing together North Korean strongman Kim Jong Un and the mercurial former NBA great Dennis Rodman. On Friday, the show will air a segment on the impact of U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan and the degree to which the Taliban has successfully used the strikes as a recruiting tool. Slowly but surely, Vice is edging in on territory typically dominated by more established media outlets.

"If you turn on the TV right now and turn to CNN, chances are you're going to end up getting six hours about the Malaysian airliner," Suroosh Alvi, one of Vice's co-founders and the host of Friday's segment about drone strikes, told Foreign Policy in an interview. "I'm actually stunned as to the volume of coverage about this plane. It's like nothing else is happening in the world. They are thereby making our jobs very easy to give our audience what they want, which is stories about the rest of the world."

That's a more radical notion than it might seem. The online revolution in journalism was supposed to herald a shift away from foreign coverage and herald the shuttering of international bureaus. But Vice repeatedly bucks that trend. They have offices spread around the world and are delivering coverage of key international issues, some of which has been quite excellent.

In Friday's episode of their HBO special, Alvi travels northwest Pakistan to report on how the Taliban have turned U.S. drone strikes in the region to their advantage. He interviews local officials and activists, sits down with a heavily masked Taliban fighter, and even manages to procure footage from a Taliban training camp. In a piece of ludicrous footage that's straight from Vice's Freudian id, a senior Taliban commander hoists a Soviet-era machine gun and fires haphazardly from a hilltop.

Taken together, the documentary executes a deft, if well-worn, critique of U.S. drone strikes: that they are creating more enemies than they are killing and that the Taliban has turned the strikes into an effective recruiting tool. "There is a cockroach effect that's been happening since 9/11," Alvi says. "America stamps down on the Taliban in Afghanistan, and they scrambled into the tribal areas of Pakistan. Then they droned they hell out of them in the tribal areas, and the cockroaches then scrambled all over the country."

Friday's HBO episode isn't the first time Alvi has traveled to Pakistan to document what might be broadly called the futility of the current methods being used to combat extremism there, and Alvi's coverage of Pakistan can be seen as a template for Vice's success. His 2006 dispatch from the gun markets of Peshawar generated huge interest online and showcased the kind of storytelling that has made Vice a darling of the Internet and an object of hatred among the established media. Dressed like a parody of a Taliban warlord, Alvi travels to the rugged Pakistani tribal areas and proceeds to go on buying spree for guns. He brandishes various weapons at the camera, inspects the wares of a gun maker who has no tongue,  and shoots an AK-47 off a rooftop. All in all, he has a great time:

And that's partly why the mainstream media so loathes it. Unlike, say, the sage scribes of the New York Times, Vice remains content to send their correspondents into the field, where they have some fun, do some "crazy shit" -- a favorite phrase of their on-camera hosts -- and capture it all on camera. Vice isn't searching for a capital "t" notion of the truth, and that drives some more traditional news organizations, well, a bit crazy. It's a conflict that was memorably captured in a scene of the documentary Page One in which New York Times media critic David Carr dresses down Vice co-founder Shane Smith for his coverage of Liberia:

And Carr has a point. The viewer doesn't walk away from their documentary about Liberia having gained a lot of insight about the conflict. Rather, the documentary mainly consists of Smith getting into sticky situations, extricating himself, and reveling on-camera in how much danger he has put himself. For journalists and war correspondents who get shot at on a regular basis and don't brag about it on camera, that perspective is understandably infuriating.

But the criticism also misses the point: Vice is more of a lifestyle company than it is a news organization, even if that perspective is shifting. Part of Vice's appeal lies in its aspirational quality. Most desk-bound hipsters watching Vice documentaries about, for example, the Congo dream about getting out from behind their computers for a little adventure. Watching someone like Alvi tromp around the Congolese jungle in his selvedge jeans and complain to the camera about how he is "soft" and probably shouldn't have gone looking for a band of murderous rebels instinctively appeals to that demographic. He, in short, is selling a dream of a lifestyle.

More importantly, Vice has figured how to package news in such a way that young people will consume it online. Just have a look at the title credits of another Alvi production from Pakistan, this one about Karachi. This is news run through the filter of 1970s spaghetti westerns and bad kung fu flicks:

As in his other productions, Alvi walks through the streets of Karachi in some high-quality denim, great sunglasses, and cool shirts. He interviews gangsters, heroin addicts, incompetent cops, and a contract killer. The word "fuck" is in heavy rotation; the "vibe" is described as "heavy." And it all makes for great watching. "In our desire to create authentic content, that always was an important factor: get as close to the source as possible," Alvi told FP. "It may be more raw than a lot of the polished content that was out there, but it's also important to be able to substantiate and also be credible."

In doing so, Alvi has become rich. Last year, Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. purchased a 5 percent stake in Vice that valued the company at $1.4 billion. Smith has even floated the notion that the company could go public.

So has Vice sold out? Alvi says no, that the company's values have remained the same.

Judge for yourself on HBO tonight.

Courtesy of Vice


The Secret History of Social Control Through Haircuts

Listen up, depraved youth of North Korea: Your long-haired revolution is officially over.

According to Radio Free Asia, the North Korean government has introduced guidelines mandating all male university students get the same haircut as Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un -- a tight fade on the sides and an awkward middle part on a floppy cut up top. The decree was reportedly issued in the capital, Pyongyang, two weeks ago and is now being implemented nationwide.

As with most stories out of the Hermit Kingdom, these latest claims about North Korean fashion come thinly sourced. The story may very well be false -- its veracity has already been called into question. But if true, it wouldn't be the first time the government has sought to impose restrictions on hairstyles. Last year, the regime outlined 28 acceptable cuts -- 10 for men and 18 for women -- that were showcased in framed photos in hair salons in Pyongyang. And in 2005, North Korea launched a crusade against long hair. A media campaign declaring "let us trim our hair in accordance with Socialist lifestyle" urged men to shear based on "the demands of the military-first era." Hair, wrote Minju Choson, a government daily, is a "very important issue that shows the people's cultural standards and mental and moral state."

In the magnitude of its depression and deplorable human rights record, North Korea is unique; in its alleged strategy of social control by buzzcut, it is not. In fact, authoritarian regimes around the world have for centuries imposed their political will by regulating men's locks.

After the Manchus conquered China in the 1640s, the empire's new rulers issued an edict forcing all adult men to shave the front of their head and tie the remaining hair in a queue, a long braided ponytail. The rule was imposed under penalty of death. The edict, former American diplomat Edward Earl Rice writes in his book, Mao's Way, reminded the "Chinese of their subordination to Manchu rule." From the conquerors' perspective, "the command to cut one's hair or lose one's head not only brought rulers and subjects together into a single physical resemblance; it also provided them with a perfect loyalty test," the historian Frederic Wakeman notes in The Great Enterprise, his book about the Manchu conquest.

Around the same time in Russia, Peter the Great attempted to stamp out beards, which he viewed as a hopeless relic of his country's past. Hoping to modernize Russia in the mold of the West, he imposed a beard tax. Individuals who paid the tariff were given a copper token inscribed with the motto: "The beard is a useless burden."

Several centuries later, during the 1970s, Albanian dictator Enver Hoxha did away with such free-market methods and outlawed beards all together. Saparmurat Niyazov, the former president of Turkmenistan, mimicked this crackdown on personal freedom when he appeared on television in February 2004 to decree that young men could no longer grow out their hair or beards.

Elsewhere in the world, decrees governing grooming have often been issued in the name of Islam. After the Taliban took control of Afghanistan in 1996, they required men to wear beards in accordance with with the militants' harsh interpretation of Sharia law. In 2010, Islamic militants in Somalia ordered men in the capital of Mogadishu to leave beards untrimmed.

Iran's clerics imposed their own brand of religiously-motivated restrictions in 2010: Ponytails and mullets were out, in favor of tightly-coiffed crew-cuts and side-parts. "The proposed styles are inspired by Iranians' complexion, culture and religion, and Islamic law," said Jaleh Khodayar, the director of Iran's Veil and Chastity Day festival. Hair gel was permitted, but only in modest quantities.

Regardless of religion, authoritarians don't seem to have much love for hippies. After overthrowing Greece's elected government in a 1967 military coup, strongman Georgios Papadopoulos banned "decadent" long hair for men and mini-skirts for women. During the 1970's, Singapore's Lee Kuan Yew denied some foreigners entry into Singapore if their hair was too long. Young people without a clean cut, as Alex Josey writes in his book Lee Kuan Yew: The Crucial Years, "are not employed as caddies at the golf courses where Lee swings his clubs."

Power: Sometimes it grows from a barber's clippers.