With its swaggering reporting style and frank, no-gore-withheld videos from global trouble spots, Vice Media has become one of the brightest stars of the digital-news age. Starting as a counterculture magazine in Montreal in the early 1990s, Vice has morphed into an international multimedia colossus, with an HBO documentary series, a book and record division, an ad agency, and multiple websites that attract nearly 60 million unique visitors a month. This week it debuted its own cable channel .
But there’s another side to Vice’s pace-setting journalism and dramatic business rise. At times, the company has blurred the lines between reporting and advertising. It has removed or altered some of its work after advertisers complained that the material put them in an unflattering light. On at least two occasions, it wove documentary footage into promotions for advertisers. In another instance, a months-long investigative project was killed, apparently out of concern about its effect on a major sponsor.
These actions over the past few years raise questions about whether Vice has crossed a traditional line in journalism. Most news organizations place a premium on their independence from advertisers and guard against sponsors influencing editorial decisions. The bright lines are meant to ensure that editorial material is trustworthy and free of advertisers’ influence.
“Audience trust is critical if you want to have an audience,” said Lockhart Steele, the editorial director of Vox Media, a digital news organization. “It really doesn’t matter if you are an old media company, a new media company, digital, print or broadcast.”
Vox’s standard, he said, is to “never change coverage at the whim of an advertiser.”
Ben Smith, the editor of Buzzfeed, another digital competitor, points to his organization’s editorial standards and ethics guide, which obligates the organization to “maintain a strict and traditional separation between advertising and editorial content. The work of reporters, writers, and editors is entirely independent of our ad salespeople and their clients.”
Vice declined to discuss its editorial policies. A spokesman, Jake Goldman, dismissed the reporting in this article as “old or inaccurate [with] absolutely no bearing on how we operate today.” He declined further comment.
Vice showed particular deference toward its sponsors in a three-part series about a year ago on the Ku Klux Klan’s recruitment of military veterans. The series initially appeared online with the logos of several companies visible onscreen. In one shot, for example, a bystander wears a T-shirt featuring the Nike logo; in another, a self-identified Klansman wears a cap with a Budweiser logo and drinks a Bud Lite.
The appearance of the logos set off a brief flurry among the documentary’s producers, who scrambled to obscure them from viewers after the documentary had already been posted. The series was briefly taken down and the logos of the two companies — both of which have been Vice sponsors — were digitally blurred, as was the logo on a Coke can. The series then reappeared, with the images altered.
News and documentary filmmakers traditionally do not remove corporate logos that appear incidentally in footage. Doing so changes the facts of a scene or image, said Tom Bettag, the former longtime executive producer of ABC’s “Nightline.” “For the life of me, I can’t figure out why Vice would have done that,” said Bettag, now a visiting fellow at the University of Maryland. “When you start doing that, when do you stop?”
Another kind of alteration occurred in 2014 when Vice produced a promotional video for “Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare,” a video game in which privatemilitary contractors battle terrorists. The promotional video features a discussion about real-life mercenaries, offering verisimilitude for the video game’s fictional scenarios. Among those interviewed in the promotional video is New York Times reporter David Sanger, who has written extensively about national security issues, including military contractors.
However, Sanger said he never agreed to participate in a commercial promo; he gave an interview to Vice last year for what he thought was a documentary about military contractors. “When that video appeared, I called them and said it was inappropriate to use my comments or image for any form of product advertising,” Sanger said. “They immediately apologized, and I asked them to delete my comments and image from use in the advertisement.’’
The promotion, however, continues to appear online with Sanger’s comments as part of it.
The “Call of Duty” incident echoed another Vice documentary that became part of a Vice promotion. In 2012, Vice shot footage for a documentary about Cure Violence, a Chicago group that tries to mediate gang disputes. Some of the documentary’s footage became part of an online promotion Vice created for a violent game called “Dishonored,” featuring the “world’s best revenge stories.”
In other words, “a documentary about a group trying to stop the near-daily calculated revenge killings in Chicago [became] a way to boost a presumed target demographic’s interest in a game about calculated revenge killing,” said Jason Prechtel, who wrote about the “Dishonored” promotion for a Chicago blog, GapersBlock.com.
Vice’s close association with its sponsors has occasionally been noted in other media. The website Gawker has periodically taunted Vice’s friendliness with advertisers, drawing pushback from Vice’s chief executive and co-founder, Shane Smith. In an interview with the Guardian newspaper, for example, Smith defended Vice’s relationships with advertisers, such as a web show about outdoor pursuits sponsored by the North Face apparel company.
On the program, Vice’s hosts, including Smith, wear the sponsor’s gear. But Smith told the Guardian that there was no violation of the “church and state” relationship between advertising and editorial. “Does North Face tell us where to go?” he said. “Do they pick our hosts? Do they f------ pick the story? No.”
In other instances, Vice has taken special steps to protect its sponsors from criticism or embarrassment.
In 2011, it posted a scathingly humorous piece about Axe body spray by comedian Neil Hamburger that included this description of the product: “Axe’s master chemist seems to be developing their various fragrances by dumping varying amounts of Hawaiian Punch and/or Country Time Lemonade into the trough-style urinals at Dodger Stadium during the top of the 9th inning.” He also called Axe “the preferred deodorant for date-rapists.”
It’s not clear whether Unilever — Axe’s marketer and a major Vice sponsor — complained. Nevertheless, it soon disappeared from Vice’s website.
Charles Davis, a former Vice freelancer who briefly served as an associate editor, said four stories he wrote or edited during his tenure with the company were killed because they ran counter to Vice’s business interests.
One of his pieces was about the South by Southwest festival in Austin, which relies on thousands of volunteers — potentially in violation of labor laws, according to Davis’s story. The story was in the final stages of being edited, Davis said in an interview, when an editor told him that the piece was being rejected because Vice had a co-sponsorship deal with AT&T at the festival.
“Marketing overruled editorial,” Davis said.
Some months before Davis submitted the South by Southwest story, editors killed another article by him, this one about unpaid labor in the commercial film and TV industry.
Those two rejections were preceded by a story by Davis that Vice did publish. This one was about the use of unpaid labor at competing publications.
Davis was subsequently fired after being told that the company no longer wanted to maintain an editorial staff in Los Angeles, where he was based. Thereafter, he went public with his concerns about editorial meddling, posting a series of screen captures on Twitter that he said were from emails from Vice editors to him enforcing Vice’s “brand” policies.
One of these reads, “Hey, [a senior editor] asked me to remind you that any ‘brand’ mention — basically any mention of a large entity that we might be making some kind of business deal with — should get run up the flagpole” for review by senior managers.
Said Davis: “What I kind of discovered is that Vice is looking to please so many investors and advertisers. You have the freedom [at Vice] to say, ‘Screw the police!’ or ‘Screw Israel!’ but if you say ‘Screw [a sponsor]!’ that’s a different story.”
This impression was backed up by another former Vice editorial employee, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to maintain a relationship with the company. This employee described an extensive reporting project undertaken by Vice journalists about Bank of America’s mortgage-lending practices.
When a senior editor found out the project had been underway for nearly three months, he expressed alarm to those involved. The investigation was soon aborted.
Some weeks later, Vice News announced the creation of a personal finance show, “The Business of Life,” aimed at its millennial audience. The sponsor was Bank of America.