THE BLOG
06/19/2014 11:42 am ET Updated Aug 19, 2014

Canada's Media Exports of the Future -- Vice and Real News -- Compete for Our Attention

Brian Ach via Getty Images

New York, New York: Oh Canada.

Thank you for your media minds and many alternative outlets. Thank you for Marshall Mcluhan for teaching us how to think about media in new ways. And, for the dedication of your critics and activists and models of independent production to the left of your BBC cloned Canadian Broadcasting Corporation which is, or used to be, to the left of most TV outlets here in the lower 48, especially PBS.

Check out Independentmedia.ca for a list of projects of note. Their directory calls it: the "largest resurgence in independent media activity in decades," but, also notes, alas, and admits, "In Canada, as elsewhere, diverse efforts involving thousands of people have arisen. However, these efforts remain largely obscure to the vast majority of Canadians."

And that's the problem, isn't it, what with many so many indy media efforts that lack the money and marketing knowhow to find or build outlets with a mass impact?

In this season of our discontent, ay, two Made-In-Canada imports are hell-bent on making a big splash here in the United States of Media.

They are very different, and the one that is more commercial and audacious, and just dripping with the avaricious attitudes of the 'hipeousie,' is being showered with attention and gobs of money with the goal of creating a multi-billion dollar empire.

That brand has one easy to remember name: Vice, with all the naughty salaciousness that implies.

Based in Brooklyn "in the house," where a new generation of artists and wannabes have settled, it may be acquired by Time Warner, which needs to revive and renew its CNN brand and is hoping to go 'all the vice all the time' on what was its unwatched and failing Headline News Channel.

Anything for positioning, never mind its social impact. Anything for ratings and revenues! Even Vice!

At the same time, it is unclear if the ad-world and the Vice world can merge. Reports the Wall Street Journal:

Digital ad buyers are enamored with Vice Media -- and they see a great fit between the media upstart and Time Warner, should the two firms figure out how to work together. As for whether Vice's ad momentum warrants a valuation of any of the multi-billion dollar numbers that have been floated of late, that's open to serious debate.

The other Canadian concoction has a conscience and raises consciousness. It is more of an antidote to US TV. It brands itself The Real News Network (TRNN) and is taking a very different approach after years of fundraising: opening a new building with state of the art studios and community based programs in downtown Baltimore, visible to the millions passing on to Washington.

TRNN was founded by Paul Jay, a filmmaker and former producer of a respected issues debate program at CBC. He is a journalist of talent and ambition determined to build a globally oriented progressive media network with strong roots in communities of pain.

For years, we have seen TV shows like The Wire tell us about the drug culture in Baltimore's inner city. Now, he wants to offer the values and analysis found in the city's exploding culture of art, activism and hip-hop as a model for a bottom up network that can expand nationwide. He is in the business to promote change, more than himself, to do good more than do well.

I have visited the new digs at Real News and they are impressive, as is the multi-cultural and multi-talented staff he has attracted.

Unfortunately, and typically, no major TV networks are offering Jay & Co deals and access because his more traditional content is too critical and system challenging.

No so for the V-Js, in your face globetrotters and political adventurers at Vice. Their leader, Shane Smith, is "inked," as they say, as big and outspoken as his tattoos.

He is building an organization that is as post-left as it is post-journalism, pursuing what they call an "immersionist" approach where the straight out of Brooklyn crowd personally wades into the world's conflicts with fast-cut but superficial reports on the world's conflict zones.

Here they are one week, with the Taliban behind the lines, or the next, playing basketball with Dennis Rodman in North Korea. What they play to is curiosity and coolness; what they sell is a certain macho attitude that has set cash registers in motion in the upper floors at the Time Warner Center.

Tough guy Smith who is always upfront, if not blatantly self-promotional, has been on a journey from left to right, as he told the Guardian:

We're not trying to say anything politically in a paradigmatic left/right way ... We don't do that because we don't believe in either side. Are my politics Democrat or Republican? I think both are horrific. And it doesn't matter anyway. Money runs America; money runs everywhere.

And he is with all the energy of one Born in the USA, running towards the money. His hardly original mantra: no guts, no glory. This helps explain why Rupert Murdoch bought a piece of the company. He likes those who challenge the so-called liberal mainstream.

Founder Smith also stated:

I grew up being a socialist and I have problems with it because I grew up in Canada [and] I've spent a lot of time in Scandinavia, where I believe countries legislate out creativity. They cut off the tall trees. Everyone's a C-minus. I came to America from Canada because Canada is stultifyingly boring and incredibly hypocritical. Thanks, Canada.

And thanks, America, for seeing the potential of using his hip conglomerate of TV news, documentaries, a record label, publishing and advertising agencies and chutzpah-driven programming brand to attract the millions of disgusted, downwardly mobile and alienated American young people who have been pushed out of the economy and are more into their devices than democracy.

For many, in this shop until you drop Republic, all brands are pushed as beautiful, especially one that says you can be an insider as well as an outsider.

Shane is now doing very well, thank you -- works very hard, no doubt -- and lists his net worth at a whopping $400 million before the Time Warner deal puts him in the same league as Dr. Dre, he of the Beats earphones, just acquired by Apple. (Recent exposes allege that Vice exploits its intern army but who in the industry cares about that!)

Vice started as a magazine focused on arts, culture and some news in Montreal where it was subsidized by the very socialist policies he now decries with grants from the local government.

The company has already lost one of its founding partners, Gavin McInnes. who started out in the punk band, Anal Chinook. Wikipedia tells us McInnes co-founded Vice in 1994, "His role as an editor at Vice led to him being referred to as "the Godfather of hipsterdom" and one of the "primary architects of hipsterdom." He left Vice in 2007 due to "creative differences."

He has moved further right after publishing his memoir, How to Piss in Public. He seems to delight in outraging journalist with statements designed to get attention by insulting and offending (ie. pissing off?) various politically correct constituencies. Vice has already apologized for his antics.

Writing on Huffington Post, TV critic Maureen Ryan asks:

Do the "Vice" correspondents ever think they're being played by forces that are using this hipster media outlet to their own ends? Do they care? It's hard to escape the sense that they do." She finds their shows "egocentric.

Whatever. None of this matters in a world where very little, save a relatively low-cost journalism of titillation matters. I was at a VICE screening at the Time Warner building a while back and tried to challenge Smith about a new film that did not teach viewers anything new about North Korea -- even its human rights abuses or the fact that it lost a million people in the Korean War and may have reasons to be paranoid.

He thanked me for my opinion and moved on. The no-nothing media loves the perception of his "courage." He has no time for debates of issues of the kind Paul Jay used to organize.

As Real News calls our attention to the underside of American life and the need for global change, Vice wants to blow us way with how to be hip by ogling their "products," -- and, of course, the bounty of advertising they expect to attract once their channel is up and running. Google is promoting their channel during the World Cup.

Theirs is a formula that plays to our tabloid instincts and low attention spans while pretending to be the next big thing. It is reality TV meets the news, and that may yet eat the news.

Update --The Wrap: Smith wants Vice to be the next Time Warner

Vice CEO Shane Smith says his company has doubled in value since it was valued at $1.4 billion last year. And while he wouldn't confirm Vice is in talks about Time Warner acquiring a stake, he did say it is "talking to everybody" about potential deals.

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News Dissector Danny Schechter edits Mediachannel.org and writes the Newsdissector.net blog. He is an author, media critic and media maker and worked at CNN and ABC. Comments to dissector@mediachannel.org