Vice News Quickly Makes Mark With Ukraine Dispatches

03/13/2014 05:59 pm ET | Updated Mar 14, 2014

NEW YORK –- Vice News correspondent Simon Ostrovsky has reported extensively through Central Asia, the Middle East and the Caucasus region, but says he’s never encountered as much hostility as he has covering the Russian invasion of Crimea.

“I think it’s because of the propaganda that Russia is broadcasting over the television networks 24/7, brainwashing the people out here into thinking that the entire world has come out against Russia,” Ostrovsky told HuffPost in a phone interview from the Crimean capital of Simferopol.

That hostility shines through in Ostrovsky’s compelling video series for the just-launched Vice News channel, titled “Russian Roulette: The Invasion of Ukraine.” In one dispatch, Ostrovsky has a tense exchange with a Russian soldier trying to prevent his crew from filming. In another, a group of pro-Russian demonstrators throw his press card on the ground and stamp on it.

But the most harrowing moment comes in the sixth dispatch. Members of the Berkut, the disbanded Ukrainian riot police force now manning checkpoints for the Russians, attack and detain Ostrovsky and a cameraman. “I'll shoot to kill," one member says.

At the end of the video, Ostrovsky said they were released because he was American and the cameraman was British. But upon reflection, Ostrovsky told HuffPost the fact that a second cameraman got away with footage from the incident likely helped. "If they held us for a long time, he said, "it was going to get out very quickly and make them look bad."

Vice is known for ground-level coverage of conflict, with the media company’s gonzo style evident in early films like “Heavy Metal in Baghdad” and “The Vice Guide to Travel.” Last year, Vice broadened its audience through an HBO series, which concluded with a controversial episode that was filmed in North Korea and featured Dennis Rodman, the former NBA star and “best friend” of dictator Kim Jong-un.

The second season of the HBO series premieres Friday with an episode looking at waste and corruption in Afghanistan. It also examines the Brazilian government's pacification of the favelas, or slums, in Rio de Janiero in anticipation of the World Cup and 2016 Olympics. In the second episode, Vice co-founder Shane Smith treks to Greenland to see the devastating effects of climate change up close.

Vice has come a long way from its roots as a renegade Montreal-based magazine. Rupert Murdoch bought a 5 percent stake in the global media company last year, putting its value at $1.4 billion. But Vice's higher-ups hope to retain its outsider ethos by appealing to a younger generation of news consumers who, they believe, care about the world but are turned off by the more detached style of traditional TV news.

“We hope to be as frequent in your lives as '60 Minutes' was for the last generation,” Eddy Moretti, the executive creative director of Vice, told an over-capacity crowd at Wednesday night’s premiere of the new HBO episodes.

Smith, too, has referenced iconic media brands when talking up Vice’s future.

On March 4, while appearing on “CBS This Morning” to discuss the the Vice News launch, Smith expressed a desire to become the next CNN, MTV and ESPN rolled into one.

By that afternoon, at least a third of Smith’s grand plan seemed feasible.

During CNN’s “The Situation Room,” host Wolf Blitzer spoke to Ostrovsky and aired footage from his first dispatch, a standoff between Russian and Ukrainian soldiers outside a military base in Crimea. Ostrovsky's reporting has since been featured several more times on CNN and on MSNBC’s “All In with Chris Hayes” and "Now with Alex Wagner."

Ostrovsky, in the immersive journalistic style that typifies Vice’s coverage of the world, scales the wall of a Ukrainian naval base, gets into an armored personnel carrier, and signs up with Crimea’s pro-Russian self-defense force. He also highlights some of the absurdities of covering the story, such as needing to physically trek to a military base in order to call the press office from a specific phone, only for them not to pick up.

But in other ways, Ostrovsky’s work isn’t so different from that of other foreign correspondents. That's not surprising given that his resume also includes reporting and documentary work for wire service AFP, BBC's NewsNight and Al Jazeera English. After freelancing for Vice, Ostrovsky moved into a more permanent role at the company last August. He arrived in Crimea on March 2, two days before the official launch Vice News launch.

In the series, Ostrovsky conducts interviews, mostly in Russian, with the people he encounters on the street and at military installations -- be they Ukrainian soldiers, demonstrators, Serbian war veterans, or the leader of a pro-Putin biker gang. (Ostrovsky, an American, was born in Russia and moved back to there as a journalist age 17.)

Ostrovsky said he’s “trying to tell the same story everybody is trying to tell” in Crimea and that he has great respect for what other journalists are doing in the region.

“It’s a just a difference in approach,” he said. “We’re not telling different stories. We’re just telling them in a different way.”

“I’m sort of looking at it in terms of what I can see, where I go, instead of trying to say everything that’s happening here in one report,” Ostrovsky said. “I just try to tell what it’s like on the ground from my own perspective, from having been there and seen what I’ve seen.”

Unlike a traditional TV package, Ostrovsky’s dispatches don’t include footage from different sources and crews, or any voiceover treatment. The seven that have been produced so far range in length from roughly four minutes to just under 13 minutes. Ostrovsky said because the dispatches don’t have to fit in the rigid time constraints of television, they will be as long as Vice believes a viewer will remain interested.

“I’m not chasing after the main headline story of the day,” Ostrovsky said. “I’m just sort of chasing after whatever’s going on and just telling the one that I actually saw.”

Watch: Ostrovsky Detained At Russian Checkpoint:


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