I need to bite my tongue and realize I’m not a millennial and, as a result, not in the target demo for Vice News Tonight, which made its debut last week on HBO. The company has designs on “remaking” television news, which, given how bad network news is and what ratings whores CNN and Fox have become, seems like a worthwhile pursuit. They’re doing it without anchors or sponsors but with attention-grabbing graphics and video, which seems to be the only way to survive in the supply-heavy attention economy.
So I may not like the style of journalism where the reporter spends as much time on camera as the person she is interviewing, and the mood music played behind reports may strike me as too much of a remaking of traditional TV news, but I shouldn’t use things like that as an excuse to dismiss Vice’s efforts out of hand.
Because, even if I am not in the target audience, and even if I wanted to hate Vice News Tonight (which I sort of did), there’s a lot to like about what they are doing, and what they are trying to do to like. It was the first news network I saw that took the time to put the battle for Mosul in Iraq into and understandable context and they did it by comparing a similar battle earlier this year in Fallujah. And remember that coup attempt in Turkey in July? How many of your trusted news networks have taken the time to do an in-depth follow-up? Vice did just that in its Oct. 17 broadcast. The narrative followed the story of a professor that had fled Turkey for the United States but also, thanks to the power of distance and reflection, put a lot of what happened in Turkey this summer into clearer light.
And that is something television news has always struggled with: finding ways to put compelling images and sounds into context, and to give it the depth. Vice may have hit upon the formula for doing just that by not chasing every story, but focussing on a handful of subjects in each 30-minute broadcast that they have the resources to report the hell out of. The two lead reports in the episodes I viewed left me feeling a bit smarter about the topic, the way I would have after reading a somewhat detailed newspaper article. You know, like I’m not an expert on the subject but I’m not going to embarrass myself at a cocktail party, either.
Vice News Tonight also did something else that print usually does better than television news, and that is (at least in the lead reports) they didn’t try to lead me to a conclusion. I really got the sense that, even though Vice and the reporter producing the story may have had their own ideological slant, I was being presented the facts to better help me make up my own mind on the topic.
Vice did less of a stellar job on hiding bias when it came to covering the US Presidential election. But then again, what news outlet hasn’t? A report noting that since 1936 no candidate with a poll lead as big as Hillary Clinton’s had lost a presidential election seemed pedestrian at best and, at worst, seemed like the horserace journalism that traditional TV news lives by but does little to inform the electorate.
Vice seems to be making a good faith, if not somewhat misguided, effort to cover Trump supporters with compassion, meaning that they’re not presented as crazy outliers by default. But the effort to tie a gathering of conspiracy theorists celebrating Lee Harvey Oswald’s birthday to Trump seemed forced and fell flat.
In fact, a lot of the filler that rounded on the second half of each broadcast seemed thin, and it did more to undermine the generally decent reporting in the first half of the show than it did to leave me feeling informed. I know Vice doesn’t want to take its cues from mainstream news departments, but perhaps a completely overhauled 60 Minutes is the model they should be shooting for: in-depth, carefully reported pieces that set — rather than chase — the news cycle and shed light on important topics that traditional TV news views as too complex to cram into a soundbite.
Other reviews of Vice News Tonight from around the Web: