About that VICE Charlottesville documentary

In the past few days a large number of my friends have been bringing up the VICE News documentary on the Charlottesville Nazi riots / protests.

As goes much of their content, the show was incredibly produced, thoroughly entertaining, and led to many messages of “we’re all fucked, the world is going to end”. That’s what they do, and they do it well.

A few things, however, to remind yourself as your rage builds:

Follow the Money

Rupert Murdoch invested $70 million into VICE in August 2013. It was his investment that set VICE on the rocketship path that has them now at a private-equity juiced $4.5 billion. Remember, VICE had been around since 1994, but Murdoch was one of the earliest media mogul to see massive potential in the decades old punk magazine. It was the type of company he knows so well.

The idea of a 70 year old white guy sitting on his couch watching Fox News and lamenting the destruction of our country by forces they fear (Gays! Blacks! Liberals!!) is one most of my friends mock with glee. Yet here we are, a portfolio company of the media genius that created the entire right wing tabloid machine’s is convincing a whole other demographic that the world is coming to an end. Anger and fear sell.

News as Porn

VICE News’ production value is unparalleled. Their storytelling is superb. Watch any of their segments and you will walk away having seen some positively insane characters, and with a sinking feeling in your stomach (their ISIS doc was one of the best things I’ve seen).

But, when watching a segment, try to be conscious of what makes it so appealing. It doesn’t get you ‘up there’ — it gets you ‘down there’. It’s visceral, exhilarating, titillating, horrifying. Every animalistic adjective you can conjure up. It’s a series of exaggerated characters that create an extreme view of reality. It’s an appeal to your most base instincts that creates a distorted perception of the world.

If politics on CNN are sport, on VICE they’re porn.

Aren’t Nazis Scary?

Yes. I’m brown. Dabbling in punk music led to encounters with some scary skinhead types. The American History X ‘bite the curb’ scene still gives me nightmares. The fact that Nazis are openly waving their flag in America, enabled by our President, is scary as hell.

Christopher Cantwell is terrifying. But you kind of knew from the moment he started speaking, he’d be a central character. He also happens to be a radio host who has been creating media for years now. The guy knows what to say to have an impact. He’s been training for this forever.

But coincidentally he was the one to let VICE ride in the van, and give one-on-one time (3 hours in fact). He definitely seems scary, but he’s also a media guy. This was his opus, and VICE gave it to him.

Cantwell with a tattoo of the Chinese character for beautiful (though it’s also used in the characters for the United States)

Distribution Matters

Brian Stelter of CNN picked up on an incredibly important detail. Normally HBO releases clips of their shows for free (why John Oliver is available as segments and not the full episode).

While HBO is fighting hackers that are leaking Game of Thrones, in this case, they effectively “leaked” the episode in full right after the airing.

From CNN:

All of your friends and your Mom didn’t just happen to come across the VICE Charlottesville episode. It was very strategically executed. I’ve previously argued that what makes HBO content so great is it’s subscription-based so doesn’t need to try to steal your attention. It’s no coincidence that the first completely free HBO show happened to be the most over-the-top.

Well, then what?

The fact that Nazis publicly took to the street is horrifying. There is no question our country is in trouble. Trump’s press conference yesterday made this infinitely worse (did anyone really think it would get better before it got worse?)

However, the more we accept sensationalism as grounded reality, we’re screwed. As long as we let our lizard brain control our perception of the world, we don’t stand a chance. If we’re not at the very least conscious of the incentives behind what we’re watching, the crazies will always win.

This is billion dollar media, funded by the same guy who owns Fox. It’s perfected the art of getting you down there. Remember, in a world where we’re all spending 116 minutes a day consuming ad-funded social media, the loudest voice will always win.

And they’re certainly winning.