Vice’s irony and the new plagiarism of Fareed Zakaria

For those who don’t know, there’s a new, trendy news company on the block. It fancies itself younger, cooler and all around better than the boring, uncool mainstream media (MSM.) It even goes so far as to describe the MSM as mostly being “old, white cowards” based on a recent survey showing journalists are “older, whiter, and better-educated than they were a decade ago—and more timid than ever before.”

With such a proudly non-timid and anti-mainstream brand, you might expect that Vice is really something new and bold, but their HBO-series’ story on the Texas drought, which aired on May 9th, is nowhere close to matching their description of being a “series featuring startling, groundbreaking stories.”

Years of Living Dangerously (YoLD), a new show on HBO’s competing network ‘Showtime,’ which also covered the Texas drought (but began filming over a year ago and aired their drought episode a month before Vice/s) has many striking similarities in their drought reporting.

Similarities between the shows include:

  1. the overall narrative of conservative faith and politics vs. climate science and a liberal, but modest reporter.

  2. the emphasis on the same meatpacking plant closure and resultant ‘prayer run’ in the small town of Plainview, TX (in the context of a multi-billion dollar drought, which caused fires that burned more homes than the total amount of jobs lost in this plant and devastated many other industries.)

  3. using the same sole scientific source (Dr. Hayhoe.)

  4. the resounding lack of belief by conservatives and Christians (except Dr. Hayhoe) in climate science.

  5. filming churches praying for rain.

  6. Showing governor Perry denouncing global warming.

Its understandable that more than one show would cover the issue of faith vs. climate change – its a big issue. And the Texas drought is also a big issue – but why would Vice cover the same plant in the same small Texas town when the drought caused an estimated 5.2 billion dollars of damage in 2011 alone? Why not cover the fires that destroyed as many homes as jobs were lost in the Cargill plant closing – or the timber industry which lost billions?

Why use the same climate scientist as their sole scientific source? Why cover the same prayer run – all without mention of YoLD, who did a nearly identical story a month ago (YoLD also did the same thing as Vice by not mentioning the NYT story on the plant that was printed the month before celeb-reporter Don Cheadle was in Plainview, and which also mentions the prayer run. At least YoLD was adding video to a print story though – and they found their own scientist source and developed their own narrative.)

Enter Fareed Zakaria.

Mr. Zakaria, who was caught plagiarizing in 2012, recently said of his new position at Vice “What I have tended to do is always try to focus on the spine of the story. It’s great to have color, it’s great to have juice, it’s great to have attitude. You also want to couple that with a narrative or analytic spine that’s coherent and intelligent, and that’s what we’ve focused on.”

So the kids are bringing the color/juice/attitude, and Fareed is bringing the narrative – which is arguably the main part that is plagiarized. YoLD has already laid out a nice, neat story of TX’ climate change butting up against it’s religious fundamentalism, complete with location (borrowed from NYT) and sourcing, which Vice then adopts.

(To Vice’s credit, they also briefly tied in fracking to Texas’ water supply issues, as it uses a lot of water. And they had a lot of shots of shrinking Texas’ bodies of water. And they didn’t copy YoLD’s (accurate) number of people laid off in the Plainview plant, saying it was 2,000 instead of the correct 2,300 . And Vice doesn’t let the climate scientist explain the science behind the issue like YoTD did. So Vice wasn’t completely unoriginal.)

You might think that Fareed’s fellow journalists would keep an eye on him more closely and not let such a “mistake” happen again, but no one at Vice seems to have a strong journalistic background. Vice even describes itself as a “leading youth entertainment company” – entertainment having little to do with journalism. Bill Maher, one of the  “group of clean-shaven, middle-aged adults to supervise” Vice’s young team , is a comedian. Tom Freston is an ex-CEO of Viacom, and the other hygeinic adult listed by Huffington Post is Fareed, the one person who seems to have a bit of journalist credibility – who has recently been caught plagiarizing.

Whether Vice didn’t mention YoLD intentionally is debatable. Whether someone at HBO heard about Showtime, their main competing network, having an expensive new show with lots of huge names that covers a similar issue as Vice, is pretty hard to debate though. Which means they probably knew that they were doing a very similar story but failed to mention it in any way, which allows them to feign originality as well as ignorance.

Vice exists in the same environment as all the other mainstream media venues – surrounded by the rich white men who have entrenched interests in and an affinity for the status quo system that made them rich. Vice may say they have a “fearless approach…like nothing else on television,” but that fearlessness doesn’t extend to their owners or their owners friends (see their coverage of 5% Vice owner Rupert Murdoch.) No organization reports against their own best interests, and Vice by way of it’s ownership and branding, has many interwoven and elitist interests which promote money over truth. Even Vice’s leader Shane Smith says “Money runs America, money runs everywhere.” A real journalist would hopefully put a little more emphasis on the power of knowledge and an informed public.

This typical, non-journalistic environment and the resultant mild effort at serious reporting on big topics is bound to lead to big problems for Vice. Not to mention it’s not helping an already almost universally hated news industry by making even the self-proclaimed innovators look like the same untrustworthy tripe.

This quote from Richard Stengel, the managing editor of Time magazine (where Fareed works and Dr. Hayhoe was interestingly recently awarded by Don Cheadle of YoLD), seems to sum the situation up nicely :

There’s a hunger for international news done in a different way. And when you’re trying to tell a story in this kind of world, you have to push it. I don’t know that you can ever go too far these days.”

Going “too far” might end up being HBO’s biggest ‘vice’ though, judging by the quality of this show and the lengths they let that show go to feign journalism – much like how Vice’s daddy Maher feigns debate on his HBO show.

And what is the purpose of all of Vice’s slop masquerading as journalism?

“I want to build the next CNN – it’s within my grasp” – Shane Smith, Vice Co-founder and CEO.

…so they can feign journalism (like CNN) on a larger scale and ironically become the mainstream that they proclaim to despise.

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