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Media Wed Oct 03 2012
Two weeks ago, I explained how Vice Media produced a documentary about violence prevention group CeaseFire (now Cure Violence) and used it to help sell Dishonored, a video game with the tagline, "Revenge Solves Everything." The hotly -anticipated game allows the player to control an assassin with magical powers in a 19th-century England-inspired fantasy setting, and will come out on PC, PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 next Tuesday, Oct. 9. Vice had partnered with the game's publisher, Bethesda Softworks, to create an online multimedia Dishonored promotion called Eye For An Eye, a website dedicated to the "world's best revenge stories." Apparently, the story of an organization trying to prevent murders caused by personal vendettas fit this bill.
As of last Wednesday, the two-part Cure Violence documentary, Chicago Interrupted, has been removed from Eye For An Eye. After several inquiries, I eventually got a Vice Media representative to officially comment on the removal. Ironically, Vice refused to answer numerous questions I asked about the documentary's production and their general editorial standards...just as they've begun a campaign to brand themselves as the future of news media.
But let's backtrack for a moment.
On Friday, Sept. 21, I emailed Cure Violence's Communication Director, Joshua Gryniewicz, for an official comment on my article. I also asked if he could shed some light on the circumstances surrounding the production of Chicago Interrupted, and if Vice Media ever told anyone at Cure Violence what they were going to use their footage for. On Tuesday, Sept. 25, Gryniewicz responded. He thanked me for inquiring about their side of the story, and wrote that "Vice Media did not at any time disclose that they intended to use their footage to promote a video game."
According to him, Cure Violence and a Vice Media associate producer exchanged several phone calls and emails over the course of June and July, during which Vice pitched the project and coordinated the logistics of the shoot. Cure Violence was left with the impression that the Vice project would be part of a web series about people who reformed their lives and that the piece would focus on violence interrupter Ameena Williams, the daughter of notorious Chicago gang leader, Jeff Ford. The personal histories of Williams and other members of the group were featured in last year's critically-acclaimed documentary, The Interrupters, and Gryniewicz noted, "We were led to believe that the video would be done in a short-form style not dissimilar to The Interrupters that would feature Ameena and some of the CeaseFire Chicago staff in a tasteful, non-sensationalist way." Instead, the resulting two-part documentary ended up exclusively on Eye For An Eye.
Gryniewicz said that he personally enjoyed Vice at times, and noted that "they did favorable pieces on [The Interrupters co-producer] Steve James, [Cure Violence founder] Dr. Gary Slutkin, and one of our London-based Cure Violence partners around the time of the [2011 England] riots." However, he pointed out, "The final product seems to have opted for the overdramatic, sensationalist, exaggerated clichés and the kind of imagery that we try to discourage in interactions with the media."
I also asked Gryniewicz if Cure Violence had contacted Vice about the final presentation of the footage. He told me he directly contacted them and asked them to remove it from the Eye For An Eye webpage, but hadn't received a response (he didn't clarify if he had reached out to Vice before or after he saw my article). He explained, "The use of the Cure Violence brand to market a video game that is in every way contrary to our mission, specifically one with a slogan "revenge solves everything," is both counterproductive to our efforts and offensive to our work."
During our email exchanges, Gryniewicz gave me the email address of the assistant producer who coordinated the video shoot. I sent an email to her asking if she could verify Gryniewicz's claims that Cure Violence was never informed that the footage would be used to promote a video game. I also asked if she could confirm that Cure Violence asked Vice to remove the documentary, and if Vice had any plans to do so. Finally, I asked her to clarify what she actually pitched to Gryniewicz and Cure Violence, and if the documentary had always been intended to be used for Eye For An Eye.
She never responded.
Instead, I received an email the next day, Sept. 26, from a Vice "communications associate." She wrote that the producer had forwarded my email to her, and asked me what I needed "help" with. I wrote back, asking for answers to the questions I already posed to the producer, along with some new ones.
For example, what part of Vice Media was behind the Eye For An Eye campaign? The people who wrote for Vice's flagship magazine? Vice's web content team? The writers involved with the brand partnership websites, such as Noisey and The Creators Project? The ad sales team? Perhaps even members of Vice's own boutique advertising agency, Virtue? While Eye For An Eye's videos and photo galleries have credits, none of the blog posts and articles on the page have bylines, so it was impossible to tell who at Vice was actually behind most of the program.
Unbeknownst to me (and possibly Cure Violence) at the time, The New York Times and Gawker had already described Vice's policy of using its editorial staff to help out with brand marketing campaigns and blur the line between editorial and advertising back in 2009. Since most of the content on Eye For An Eye is either Vice documentaries, photographs, or rewritten news clips, I was interested in finding out how exactly Vice Media went about brainstorming and creating all-purpose "revenge" content for the site. More specifically, since Vice Media produced videos and documentaries for its multiple websites, were the Eye For An Eye documentaries originally shot to be part of the program? Or were they produced first, and then assigned to the website because they vaguely fit the contours of "revenge"?
After a couple emails back and forth, the associate told me she'd look into getting me answers, and asked for my phone number. I emailed it back to her, and attempted to call her to discuss. She responded with an email saying that I would get a call the next day. In the meantime, I noticed that at some point that afternoon, Vice removed both parts of Chicago Interrupted from Eye For An Eye without making mention of it anywhere on the webpage.
On Thursday, Sept. 27, I received a phone call from Vice Media spokesperson, Alex Detrick. Mirroring the language of the previous Vice PR rep, he asked me what he could "help" me with. I repeated that I was looking for answers to all the questions I had initially posed in my previous emails to Vice staffers, which also included a question about whether a short documentary series about guns that had appeared on Vice that week was a paid promotion for a different hyped video game called Borderlands 2. In addition, I told him that I was looking for any official comment about my article and/or Vice's use of Chicago Interrupted in its Eye For An Eye campaign.
A couple hours later, I received an email from Detrick, which stated: "We're currently working with CeaseFire to find the best platform [in the VICE universe] to broadcast this segment, which documents CeaseFire's important service to the Chicago community."
Neither Detrick or Gryniewicz responded to follow-up emails I sent asking for further comment. For that matter, neither Detrick nor anyone at Vice ever answered my questions, or even pointed me in the direction of the previously written articles about their blurred editorial/advertising policies that would have answered some of my questions for them. Although the official Vice statement seems to imply that Chicago Interrupted was intentionally made for the Eye For An Eye campaign, no one from Vice ever volunteered any information about the details of its production, clarified or counteracted Gryniewicz's descriptions of what happened, and Detrick even declined to answer the basic question of when the Eye For An Eye campaign first went online. Bethesda also didn't respond to an email inquiry about the nature of their "partnership" with Vice and how they felt the Eye For An Eye campaign was going.
Having briefly worked at both an advertising agency and a public relations firm, I can understand why Vice would be tight-lipped about this. Divulging information about their staffers and brand campaign strategies could potentially reflect poorly on them and their clients and, in turn, generate further bad publicity from media outlets that weren't even paying attention to the original controversy. I'm sure the first two Vice staffers I tried to contact (along with anyone involved with Vice's branding and PR efforts) are beholden to some sort of confidentiality agreement, and would've been unable to speak candidly on the record even if they wanted to.
But while I was trying to pry information out of Vice last week, two other significant things happened that might help explain why they only gave me a strategically-worded, one-sentence response to my article when they did.
One was a Tribune report that a former Cure Violence interrupter was shot in the back of the head last Wednesday morning and died in the hospital — hours before Chicago Interrupted disappeared from Eye For An Eye. It's worth noting that while Dishonored features an open-ended plot where one can go through the game without killing a single person, the gameplay mechanics place heavy emphasis on the player's stealth killing abilities, and encourage players to approach killing or assassinating targets in a variety of creative ways. Given that the murder of former interrupter Marlon Lee seemed premeditated, it likely gave Vice Media another reason to oblige Cure Violence's request to remove the documentary from the same place as this gameplay trailer:
The second significant thing that happened last week was the start of Vice Media's campaign to re-position itself as the future of news media. Last Monday, Newsweek profiled Vice's expansion from a magazine into a global multimedia brand over the last decade. The article detailed Vice's plans to expand its online news offerings, launch an upcoming HBO show, corner the market for web content appealing to the under-30 demographic, and potentially buy anywhere from 10 to 20 dying traditional media brands — all while retaining its signature non-objective, gonzo journalistic take on the world that it describes as "raw" and "authentic."
And the next day, Vice co-founder Shane Smith showed up on popular social news website Reddit to promote Vice's new documentary about Mexican Cartels fighting Mormon colonies near Juarez (including relatives of Mitt Romney). He fielded questions from Reddit users about the various Vice travel documentaries, offered jobs to aspiring filmmaking Redditors, and in one particular response, claimed that Vice Media would be leading the changing of the guard in media. Smith wrote, "Over the past 15 years mainstream media has failed us." He added, "They don't keep powerful politicians and businessmen in check, the [sic] have failed as the fourth estate." Never mind that Vice Media is projected to make over $200 million this year (partially through advertising and brand sponsorships), uses the previous press spokesperson of former New York Attorney General (and current Governor) Andrew Cuomo, and is backed by a private equity firm advised by some of the most powerful figures in Hollywood, publishing, new media, and Chinese state-sponsored entertainment.
In the midst of what was supposed to be Vice's promotional victory lap week, it makes sense that they'd give as little information as possible about the questionable handling of one of the very sort of documentaries that are supposed to drive the future of the Vice brand. Although it's just one piece of the global media empire's sea of content, the tale of how Vice Media produced, uploaded and removed Chicago Interrupted should give pause to anyone who thinks that the company's hazy blend of branding, journalism, and entertainment is a model other news media companies should follow in the future. But Vice is no typical media company, and they don't have a typical editorial slant. As Smith told Newsweek, "We investigate the absurdity of the modern condition."
Here's one modern idea for Vice: make a documentary investigating the absurdity of not telling an organization that they were being filmed in order to help promote a video game allowing players to simulate everything that organization is opposed to.
I know at least one person who'd love to see Vice's raw and authentic take on that story.