[Marxism] Vice News and Michael Hastings
lnp3 at panix.com
Mon Jun 23 06:29:45 MDT 2014
These two NY Times articles should be read in tandem. The first
discusses the spectacular success of Vice News, a mostly web-based
company that despite being left-of-center is being wined and dined by
Rupert Murdoch. This is not that surprising considering the fact that
Murdoch also purchased the Village Voice some years ago for the simple
reason that profits can be made from "edgy" media.
The second article is about a posthumous novel by Michael Hastings, the
journalist whose profile of General McChrystal in Rolling Stone led to
the general's downfall. Hastings's novel describes a journalistic world
that is rotten to the core, focused on his experiences at Newsweek.
Vice Has Many Media Giants Salivating, but Its Terms Will Be Rich
By JONATHAN MAHLER and RAVI SOMAIYA
JUNE 22, 2014
A black S.U.V. recently rolled through the streets of Williamsburg,
Brooklyn, and stopped in front of the converted warehouse that is the
global headquarters of Vice Media. Out of the vehicle stepped the media
mogul Rupert Murdoch.
Mr. Murdoch’s 21st Century Fox owns a small stake in Vice, and he was
visiting Brooklyn to meet with Vice’s chief executive, Shane Smith.
Among the topics at hand was a rumor that Vice was negotiating to
collaborate with, and perhaps sell a large stake to, one of Fox’s
competitors, Time Warner.
Fox is discussing a deal with Vice, too. So is Disney. Any agreement is
likely to value Vice, which started as a free magazine in Montreal in
1994, at $1.5 billion to $2.5 billion. A partnership could take many
shapes. But Vice, which has produced just 11 hours of programming
expressly for television, is seeking its own TV network, a movie deal
and a lot of money for its founders and investors.
The digital disruption that is transforming the news and entertainment
businesses has led to many odd alliances, but few seem more incongruous
than one that would join Vice with a corporate media conglomerate.
Though financing itself mostly by making videos in partnership with
large corporations, Vice has assiduously cultivated an insurgent image,
with its tattooed news correspondents, hand-held cameras and
journalistic stunts like sending the former basketball player Dennis
Rodman to North Korea.
Along the way, Mr. Smith, 44, has routinely criticized the mainstream
media and traditional television. If he can reach a deal with one of
these companies, he will be joining the club he has professed to disdain.
And yet here he is, in negotiations involving the likes of James
Murdoch, Rupert’s son and Fox’s heir apparent; Robert A. Iger, chief
executive of Disney; and Jeffrey L. Bewkes, chief executive of Time
Warner. All of them are desperately scrambling to reach a generation of
consumers who are more attached to their mobile phones than to
The executives covet Vice’s unruly, D.I.Y. sensibility — “News from the
edge” is the tagline for its 30-minute weekly program on HBO — and,
above all, the connection it has established with its core audience of
Now that he is in conversations that could net his company hundreds of
millions of dollars, Mr. Smith, normally brash and outspoken, is trying
to be discreet. Though he would not speak about the various deals Vice
is discussing, he talked about his vision for the company’s future and
television’s role in it recently at his office.
“It’s the next step in our evolution,” he said. “Our mobile and online
stuff is going to grow exponentially, but we want a three-legged stool,
and the third leg is TV.”
Bearded and bearish, Mr. Smith looks as if he belongs at a Viking feast,
drinking mead from his helmet. Instead, he was sipping chilled premier
cru Chablis poured by an assistant.
Fox, Disney and Time Warner all declined to comment.
Deals that join heavily hyped digital companies with large media
conglomerates do not always end well. News Corporation bought the
website Myspace for $580 million in 2005, and sold it six years later
for $35 million. Time Warner’s 2000 merger with AOL is now taught to
aspiring M.B.A.s as the worst business transaction in history.
Mr. Smith contends Vice is different. The company’s finances are
private, but a person familiar with its business said it expected to
generate about $500 million in revenue in 2014. A vast majority comes
not from online news content but from videos created to resemble news
content, paid for by companies like Intel and AT&T.
Vice would also arrive with a devoted following, though the size of its
audience is hard to verify independently. The hope is that it will not
become another Myspace, but a modern, multiplatform MTV. Tom Freston, a
founder and former chief executive of MTV who went on to run Viacom, is
one of Vice’s investors and closest advisers.
Mr. Murdoch controls 21st Century Fox, which last summer paid $70
million for a 5 percent stake in Vice. Mr. Murdoch’s son James sits on
Vice’s board. Credit Elizabeth Lippman for The New York Times
MTV was built on an original concept: the pop-music video. Vice’s appeal
is that it has branded a certain kind of cool, but coolness is an
ephemeral concept. And there is exponentially more content to compete
with now than when MTV began in 1981, making it harder than ever to
Vice got its first taste for television when it started producing its
weekly newsmagazine show for HBO last year. It recently broadcast the
final episode of its second season, featuring reports from crime-ridden
Camden, N.J., and refugee camps in Chad and Darfur. (In last year’s
infamous finale, Mr. Rodman and three members of the Harlem
Globetrotters played before Kim Jong-un in North Korea.)
In its first year, Vice’s HBO show averaged 821,000 viewers a week,
including the original broadcast and viewings in the next seven days,
according to Brad Adgate, the director of research for Horizon Media.
Weekly viewership fell to 760,000 in its second season. HBO says the
numbers are substantially higher when online and on-demand viewing are
People familiar with the negotiations say the talks with Time Warner
have made the most progress. It could buy a large, minority stake in
Vice, and give Vice control of the cable channel HLN, or they could
operate the network as a joint venture. The deal would give Vice a
24-hour news network that reaches more than 100 million households. Time
Warner would get a potential solution to a channel that has struggled to
find an audience.
But the companies remain at odds over how much influence Time Warner
would have over Vice and HLN, said the people familiar with the talks,
who spoke on condition of anonymity because they are continuing and
delicate. The two also disagree about the total value of Vice. Time
Warner contends it is worth about $1.5 billion; Vice says it is worth at
least $2.5 billion.
These people also cited another matter. In March, Mr. Smith delivered a
profanity-laced assessment of CNN — also owned by Time Warner — to The
Daily News in New York, calling the network “a disaster.” The president
of CNN, Jeff Zucker, was furious, a Time Warner official said. If Vice
were to take over HLN, Mr. Zucker and Mr. Smith would be colleagues.
Among its other suitors, Vice has the strongest relationship with Fox,
which last year bought a 5 percent stake in the company for $70 million.
James Murdoch is on Vice’s board.
But a Fox deal faces hurdles, too. The company does not have a logical
single channel to give Vice, which is what Mr. Smith most wants. “You
can’t be MTV without a TV network,” he said.
An agreement might instead call for Vice to program blocks of time on a
few Fox networks. And, of course, Fox’s defining news brand, Fox News,
is not popular among Vice’s core audience.
The talks with Disney were initiated more recently — it is not clear at
whose prompting — after news of the Time Warner discussions broke. It is
also unclear how a deal might be structured.
Disney has recently pursued digital media assets that cater to a younger
audience. In March, it acquired the YouTube video production network
Mr. Smith said Vice was in a powerful bargaining position. “It’s not
like we’re beggars coming cap in hand saying please give me a network,”
he said. “We’re bringing Gen Y, we’re bringing mobile, we’re bringing
social, we’re bringing all of these things that they don’t have.”
Vice has focused most of its energy and resources on the web. But while
its six YouTube channels and various websites attract plenty of digital
advertising, those rates pale in comparison to what Vice’s shows could
potentially command on television.
More to the point, the move into television might also allow Vice to
become less financially dependent on advertising agency work and
corporate partnerships. In other words, it could try to evolve into a
pure content-only operation.
Even if Vice can make a deal, there is no guarantee that its fans will
follow the company to television in an era when young people are getting
their news, increasingly, on other types of screens. “News on TV skews
very old,” said Tom Rogers, the chief executive of TiVo, who helped
start CNBC and MSNBC among other cable channels. “Most news channels
have average audiences of 60 or older.”
The average age of Vice’s HBO viewers is 46 to 50, Mr. Adgate said. Its
online audience is a good deal younger, but on television anyway, it has
not reached the elusive millennial demographic.
Developing a television show is also very different from developing a
web series. Michael Lombardo, the president of programming at HBO, said
the network had worked very closely with Vice to shape the newsmagazine
show into something it felt could build an audience on television. The
conversations were not always easy, he said.
“When you’re in the digital space and you’re looking for clicks the idea
is to just be noisy,” he said. “That impacts not only the subjects of
your story but the way you tell a story. It’s different when you have
someone sit down to a half-hour or hour show.”
Last week, the talks over Vice’s future moved from Brooklyn to Cannes,
the site of an annual international media conference that attracts many
of the world’s biggest companies. Vice rented three villas for the
occasion, and, hosted a couple of big parties. One had been scheduled
for a French strip club, but the guest list grew so long that it had to
be moved to a more conventional location, the Palais des Festivals.
A Novel Lays Bare Media Ills
Michael Hastings’s ‘Last Magazine’ Shows War as Career Opportunity
JUNE 22, 2014
THE MEDIA EQUATION
At first glance, “The Last Magazine: A Novel” by Michael Hastings would
appear to lack relevance in the current media age. A fictional account
of life inside a failed magazine — Newsweek — in a dying industry —
print — written by a now-dead journalist, the book seems very much
beside the point. And the march of history aside, does the world need
another roman à clef from inside the world of Manhattan media, whose
bottomless interest in itself is not generally shared by the public?
But even from the grave Mr. Hastings has demonstrated anew an ability to
reframe the debate. The novel, exhumed by his spouse after his death and
published last week, reads as vivid archaeology that reveals much about
the present moment.
The book seems eerily relevant in part because it arrived the same week
it became clear that while America was done with Iraq, Iraq is not done
with America, not by a long shot.
The novel begins when its main character, Michael Hastings, gets a job
as an intern in 2002, just as the media tom-toms of battle are rising.
“There’s war in the backdrop, looming and distant and not real for most
of these characters, myself included,” he writes in a dose of
Things changed for Mr. Hastings — the person, not the book character —
after he went to cover the war in Iraq for Newsweek, and then, most
notably, when he profiled Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the top American
commander in Afghanistan, for Rolling Stone in 2010. The article used
intimate access to expose the cynicism and ambition of the general and
his staff, and General McChrystal was forced to step down.
Some establishment journalists cried foul even as Mr. Hastings won a
Polk award, suggesting he did not play by the rules. Those rules suggest
that we always know more than we tell our readers and collaborate with
our sources even as we cover them. (Writing in New York magazine three
weeks ago, Frank Rich suggested that Mr. Hastings’s book was a sharp
rebuke to the commenting class.)
That may be why politicians and journalists are now neck and neck in a
race to the bottom of public trust. According to a poll released by
Gallup last week, fewer than a quarter of news consumers trust what they
read, watch or click on, a historic low.
Mr. Hastings’s book comes on the heels of last year’s “This Town,” by my
New York Times colleague Mark Leibovich, which vividly described how the
media has traded its independence for access and become one more part of
a suspect apparatus.
As Iraq has reminded us this month, when we climb on board and yield our
skepticism, the lies we tell ourselves and then our readers can come in
for a big beating. Wars are rationalized, nonexistent weapons of mass
destruction become pretext for action, and quagmires are rendered in
Much has changed since the period Mr. Hastings chronicles, most notably
that the audience has fled established print outlets and suspicion of
government has soared. The notion that a magazine of all things is
central to the national discourse seems quaint, and the country will no
longer be lulled to sleep by talk of quick, winnable wars.
The public is less prone to the allure of Great Men pontificating from
inside a magazine, the television or behind a lectern at a news
conference. The jig is up.
In Mr. Hastings’s book, even as the protagonist strives to become what
he despises — a big-deal magazine writer — he realizes that soon enough
it will all go away. “I feel like I’m a blacksmith in the days of Henry
Ford’s assembly line, an apprentice scroll writer in the months
following Gutenberg’s great invention, or a poet in 1991,” he writes.
Amid the self-seeking people at the magazine — with many hands on a
greasy pole of advancement composed of book sales, cable segments and
cocktail chatter — the making of war is just one more career
opportunity. Finger to the wind, the men who run the place send squads
of underlings and assistants scurrying for pillows, lunches and research
on the coming conflict for their large thoughts for The Magazine, which
is what Mr. Hastings calls Newsweek.
The milieu of the book paints a picture of a treehouse where like minds
connive and look for an opening. But far below them, there is the sound
of sawing — steady and implacable. The tree will fall. The insurgents —
in media, in Iraq, in the world at large — are on the march and a
privileged perch is no longer assured.
The emperors, as it turned out, had no clothes, and now they have no
kingdom. Newsweek withered, was sold for a dollar, was revived, sold,
revived again, all while hemorrhaging money. Newsmagazines sell less
than half of what they did on newsstands in 2008, and their ability to
start (or end) conversations by their choice of cover subjects is never
The national pulse, once embodied by the appearance of the Beatles or
Steve Jobs on magazine covers on the newsstand, is now something that is
measurable in seconds by what is trending on the web. In that context,
“The Last Magazine” is a portrait of cartoon excess, with its hefty
car-service bills, grave self-import and conjured-up news hierarchies.
There is still some great magazine journalism going on — Mr. Hastings’s
McChrystal piece among them — but for the most part magazines have
become just one more channel of data.
It is a reminder that the cocksureness of the ruling class is a
reflection not of wisdom but aggrandizement. The fact that many of the
political architects of the failed war are back on cable pontificating
about what needs to happen now tells you all need to know.
“No one ever accuses America of being a nation of historians,” Mr.
Hastings writes. “Our impressions over the long run are formed by a few
vivid pictures and a tagline.”
For the Iraq war, the iconic image is President George W. Bush speaking
in front of a “Mission Accomplished” banner just weeks after the
invasion began. Many in the media went along with the conceit, including
myself at one point. More than a decade later, the mission in Iraq is
continuing and far from accomplished.
But as Mr. Hastings points out in “The Last Magazine,” being a nimble
member of the media means almost never having to say you’re sorry. “We
captured Saddam,” one editor tells another in the book. It is always
“we” when victory is at hand, and always “they” when the marble rolls
off the table.
Journalism is a blunt instrument, a sometimes ugly business in which Mr.
Hastings occasionally finds himself implicated. “In my defense, I’d like
to point out that we at The Magazine are always doing unseemly things,
always taking people’s experiences and actions and desires and totally
mangling them for our purposes.”
To wit, there have been those who suggested Mr. Hastings’s mysterious
and tragic death at age 33 showed he was too honest for a world where
the truth is overwhelmed by careerism and propaganda. In truth I have no
idea why his car ended up smashed into a palm tree in Los Angeles in the
early morning hours of June 18 a year ago. I just know he left something
Last week, I published a column about the failure of the news media to
pay sufficient attention to the Virginia primary in which the House
majority leader, Eric Cantor, was upset in stunning fashion. I implied
that The Washington Post was among those who missed the story. In fact,
less than a month before the primary, The Post published a front-page
article noting that Mr. Cantor’s opponent was “gaining national
attention as a potential threat to Cantor’s hold on his solidly
Republican, suburban district.” There was other relevant coverage as
well. Contrary to what I wrote, it’s clear The Post provided important
reporting on the story.
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