Vice Is the Establishment Now

When it's hard to tell the difference between a former White House press secretary and a hipster media CEO, times have changed.

Max Taylor/The Atlantic

If you were watching Jay Carney and Shane Smith chat on stage on at the Washington Ideas Forum on Wednesday, it wasn't hard to tell which one was a former White House press secretary and Washington bureau chief for Time (close-cropped hair, sharp suit, conservative tie), and which was the CEO of Vice Media (T-shirt, jeans, beard, and tattoos).

Without the visuals, though, it might have been tough to tell which was a creature of the establishment and which was a hipster tycoon.

For example, which one railed against the media for insisting on a sanctimonious false objectivity and refusing to call "B.S." on climate-change claims? And which one complained that in today's media, "whatever is craziest wins" and started a sentence with, "I was talking to Mayor Bloomberg about this the other night ..."? (Carney and Smith, respectively.)

It was an interesting conversation about the state of the press today. Both lamented that political reporting is too superficial, complained about inadequate coverage of global warming, and wrung their hands over the fate of The New York Times.

But the main takeaway was how clearly Vice is the establishment now, with the influence, cash, and attitude to back it up. Smith was all swagger, even without the name drops. He proclaimed the death of the authoritative voice of old media; dispensed dismissive advice for old-media outlets he thinks are probably doomed ("if you don't have a mobile solution, you shouldn’t even show up at the gate"); and explained confidently why he thinks Vice has the answer: "Because we’re making a lot of money. It’s not rocket science. There’s a changing of the guard every generation in media, and we’re the changing of the guard for Generation Y." Carney, meanwhile, deferentially praised Vice, along with Vox, for bringing back reporting.

All fair enough. For far too long, Vice's excellent reporting was dismissed because of who the journalists were and where they came from (not Columbia Journalism School). To choose just one recent example, Vice has had some of the best coverage of ISIS, among other stories.

But it would have been nice to hear Carney press Smith a little harder on standards at Vice, a topic he briefly raised then set aside quickly. Vice deserves praise for excellent work, but the objections to be discussed aren't about whether or not it uses the "voice of God" in its coverage. It's about, for example, whether advertiser concerns are warping its journalism, as some former staffers allege. Those are questions even this Gen Y-er would like to hear answered—but then again, maybe that sort of aggressive questioning isn't to be expected from the old media.