Shane Smith, one of the founders of Vice magazine and the international media conglomerate it spawned, had just returned from a four-day tour of Afghanistan.
"We were filming the poppy palaces," he told The Cutline. "America's now the largest drug dealer in the world, because it's running Afghanistan, and Afghanistan is the largest drug-dealing country in the world. The narco-lords build these 50-bedroom palaces with gold fountains with champagne coming out of them, and pools everywhere, and gold plates -- all from heroin."
It was Wednesday night, and Smith, just a few hours off a plane, was in the lobby of Sunshine Cinemas on Manhattan's Lower East Side after a screening of "The Vice Guide to Everything," the new series that Vice's Internet video arm, VBS, has produced in conjunction with MTV.
Vice describes the show as "a groundbreaking investigative series dedicated to covering the world's most bizarre, dangerous and shocking stories." In the first two episodes, Smith and his co-hosts go deep inside a Russian mob ring; a Mexican amusement park where you can pay $10 for a simulated overnight border smuggling; an illegal basement strip club in Detroit; and, well, North Korea.
During a segment in which Smith and director Spike Jonze search for evidence of al-Qaeda in Yemen -- the filming of which landed them in the custody of local authorities to whom they offered an $8,000 bribe to avoid jail time -- Smith remarks: "Most of the time, when the mainstream media reports on something, it never tells the whole story."
Which major news outlet does Smith think are the most egregious offenders?
"Everybody!" he shot back. "All of them. We didn't start out as journalists. Frankly, we were hedonists, and all we [cared] about was denim and drugs. So if we're the guys who are actually doing news, the situation has to be pretty bad."
Lofty statement coming from a man who started a publication that has long been considered the preferred reading material of cynical hipsters. But in recent years, Vice, in print and through its online video content, has transformed itself into a respectable news organization that has gained acceptance from the very media giants Smith attacks. It struck a partnership with CNN this year. The New York Times has given it the profile treatment three times in the past three years. It gets nominated for some of the same awards as its mainstream media counterparts.
"Vice has always uncovered the most distinctive and provocative news stories in all genres," said Shannon Fitzgerald, head of East Coast development for MTV, in a statement.
The MTV show, which was developed by network executives Tony DiSanto and Liz Gateley before they exited the company in September, is an extension of the compelling and dangerously reported features that have become a trademark of the new Vice brand -- traveling to Darfur and landing an interview with controversial Sudanese Liberation Army leader Minni Minawi, for example, or tracking down a heavy metal band amid the wreckage of the Iraq war.
"John McCain went [to Baghdad] and was going around saying, 'Oh, it's fine,'" said Smith. "We were there at the same time, but we were staying in the Red Zone. We weren't allowed in the Green Zone. And it was chaos! Bombs, guns, everything going off. And not one of the major news organizations was reporting on that."
But could a show billed as "'Jackass' meets '60 Minutes'" that airs on the same network that brought us "The Hills" actually be considered journalism?
"I think it's documenting the absurdity of the modern condition," said Smith. "Young people have to know what's going on out there in the world, but not by watching CBS News every night."
"The Vice Guide to Everything" premieres Monday.
- Tony DiSanto
- media conglomerate
- gold plates