OCCUPIED PALESTINE – What happens when the billionaire face of the self-described “world’s preeminent youth media company” — known for its sex, drugs and rock-and-roll coverage of current events — gains access to the top echelons of the world’s preeminent human rights-abusing settler colonial state?
The answer is as predictable as it is simple: you get hipster hasbara — biased Israeli propaganda attempting to justify the horrors of colonialism and systematic murder while posing under the banner of edgy indie media.
Such was the vapid display featured online and on HBO on Tuesday night’s episode of VICE News Tonight, when the once-independent media empire’s co-founder Shane Smith sat down in Jerusalem to interview Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a feature whose title bears the Zionist chieftain’s nickname, “Bibi.”
Smith’s line of questioning was feeble, to say the least:
For 20 years [the U.S.] didn’t open the embassy because they were afraid of violence, and now the embassy was open and there was violence. What do you say to the criticism that’s coming from around the world?”
The decision to grant center-stage, and toss such softballs, to the perpetrator of Monday’s massacre in Gaza – perhaps the most visibly egregious incident of state terrorism this year – highlights the pro-systemic nature of VICE Media.
Indeed, VICE should be taken as the journalistic equivalent of Rupert Murdoch in an Urban Outfitters wardrobe: the capitalist poseur may sport faux-millennial wares from trendy hipster boutiques, but behind the façade lies the same old decrepit status quo.
While the Netanyahu interview was streamed online on VICE News’ Facebook and YouTube platforms, an accompanying segment presenting a Palestinian perspective on the Gaza bloodshed – shorter, sharper, more powerful on a basic journalistic level – was relegated to the subscriber-only, HBO broadcast version of their show.
Netanyahu shoots from the lip; Shane Smith apathetically nods
The fact that the news series, co-produced by pro-Zionist/anti-Muslim bigot Bill Maher, would provide such a platform to Netanyahu on the 70th anniversary of the 1948 Nakba (“catastrophe”), which kicked off the ethnic cleansing of Palestine and founding of the Israeli state, is already alarming. Yet it also took place one day after the mass slaughter of unarmed Palestinians in Gaza by Israeli occupation forces.
Gaza’s Ministry of Health estimated that around 2,771 protesters were injured in Monday’s protests, in addition to the 62 killed. In sheer volume, this was perhaps the grisliest casualty-count the Gaza Strip has incurred in a single day since the siege of Gaza began 11 years ago.
Social movement organizer and journalist Ajamu Baraka described the Monday massacre powerfully in an article for Counterpunch, noting:
In one day at a fence on a barren strip of land in Gaza that separates ‘Israel’ from the open-air concentration camp where 1.5 million Palestinians are confined, known as Gaza, over 50 Palestinians were systematically murdered by heavily armed soldiers positioned elevated on mounds of dirt that turned the unarmed protesters who approached the fence to protest their confinement and occupation into a killing zone…
Watching those scenes of horror, I couldn’t help but wonder about the psychological health of anyone who could find a way to reconcile themselves to that kind of madness. How one could somehow explain away the brutality.”
In a sad reflection of Shane Smith’s own psychological state — influenced by the intoxicating power of drugs or money, or likely both — the VICE co-founder had no such qualms about helping to explain away the wanton violence of Israeli settler-colonialism.
If for no other reason, his “Bibi” feature was noteworthy for its altogether passive journalistic approach to the right-wing leader, with a tuxedo-clad Smith resembling a subordinate of the grinning Netanyahu — tired, nodding along acquiescently, and displaying zero journalistic curiosity in the regional matters that have dominated headlines and gripped world audiences over at least the past two months.
Netanyahu kicked off the segment by presenting an alleged Iranian drone downed by the Israelis and cited as their casus belli for aggression against Iran. The February downing of the Iranian drone — glibly described by VICE News as engaging in an “attack” — “precipitated a volley of Iranian missiles launched at Israel from Syria’s Golan Heights” in May, we are led to believe, in an unconvincing attempt to advance a narrative of Israel’s perpetual victimhood. The multiple Israeli attacks on alleged Iranian targets between the drone interception and exchange of fire around the Golan is not mentioned by VICE.
Smith also allowed the Israeli leader to present a propagandistic inverted reality, whereby the heavily-armed colonizer is menaced by its starving and poverty-ravaged victims:
Smith: Today was a historic day, the [U.S.] Embassy opened here in Jerusalem [yet] at the same time there were unprecedented riots in Gaza…
Netanyahu: Not riots, deliberate infiltration attempts paid and organized by Hamas.
Following a failed U.S.- and Israeli-backed coup attempt against the popularly elected Hamas government in 2007, the Palestinians confined to Gaza have faced three devastating wars initiated by the Israelis, and a stifling blockade by Tel Aviv and Cairo that has claimed at least a thousand lives. In the Israelis’ 50-day assault on Gaza in 2014, around 2,250 Palestinians were killed, including 551 children. Since then, over a thousand lives have been claimed by the stifling blockade imposed by the Israelis, which has included the choking-off of water supplies, foodstuffs, electricity and building materials.
Palestinian grievances distorted, “riots” presented without context
Founded in Montreal in 1994, VICE Magazine earned its fame and fortune through an idiosyncratic, gonzo-style approach to documentary journalism – an irreverent hipster style most memorably lampooned by The Onion in a satirical video feature called “Beyond The Brink: How The Israeli Occupation Has Made It Impossible For Palestinians To Score Drugs.”
Yet Smith’s interview with the Israeli head of state and military spokesman undercut VICE News’ own promotional hype about its “fearless, raw approach to storytelling,” reducing the tag-line to hollow verbiage on the level of the the Fox News motto, “Fair and Balanced.”
In truth, the Israeli prime minister’s Media Center probably couldn’t have produced a more biased, anti-Palestinian piece if they teamed up with such blatantly pro-Israeli news anchors as CNN’s Wolf Blitzer or the apocalyptic Christian Evangelical Zionists of the Trinity Broadcasting Network.
Without even mentioning the legitimate Palestinian demand for the right to return to their robbed homes and ancestral lands in their “Bibi” feature, VICE inscribed Netanyahu’s demands for unconditional Palestinian surrender across the captions of its video uploads:
It’s time to tell Palestinians: Abandon your fantasy of destroying Israel. Abandon the fantasy that says Israel will disappear. It will not.”
Muffling the Palestinian voice
Stepping away from the conference rooms and offices of the occupation authority, VICE News Tonight then shifted the focus to the Palestinian people in a segment titled “GAZA.”
A separate video published on Monday – “Why Palestinians Are Willing To Risk Their Lives During Gaza Border Protests” – depicted grisly video showing the human cost of the massacre, including scenes of unarmed Palestinians being shot in the protests. Walker interviewed Palestinian Red Crescent worker Mohamed Riza, who hauntingly noted:
[Palestinians] have nothing to lose. There is no life in Gaza – at all.”
At last count, the video – presented by investigative journalist Sebastian Walker – had been seen 1.1 million times on Facebook alone.
Unlike that segment or Smith’s “Bibi” discussion, Walker’s GAZA story wasn’t published on VICE News’ freely-accessible YouTube channel and could be viewed only with a subscription to premium cable-TV station HBO — which costs about $14.99 per month, either streaming online or on top of monthly cable-TV packages and subscription-based digital streaming services like Hulu or Amazon Prime.
Clocking in at under three minutes versus the five-minute interview with occupation officials, the segment offers a graphic explanation of the tragic toll suffered by the Palestinians of Gaza in the Israeli onslaught.
On-location scenes presented by Walker depict the bombardment of Gazans by the Israelis’ new gas-equipped drones and clashes between Palestinians and Israelis in Occupied Bethlehem, while the Nakba is described accurately – if conservatively – as the “expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians in 1948.”
Saeb Erekat, the chief negotiator of the Palestinian Authority, is allotted less than a minute to denounce the Israeli authorities’ intransigence and U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to move the U.S. Embassy, noting that a “fair and a just settlement between Palestinians and Israelis based on a two-state solution” is needed.
In contrast to the generous time alloted to Netanyahu, Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh is given a mere six-second soundbite where he similarly denounces the policies of Trump and Tel Aviv.
The VICE segment also centered on the bereaved father and lifeless body of martyred eight-month-old infant girl Laila Anwar al-Ghandour, who was killed amid the Israelis’ indiscriminate gas bombing of Gazans.
“Scenes like this one are only going to drive more outrage, and more violence,” Walker notes.
VICE’s soft propaganda: Follow the money
As is the case with Democracy Now – which intersperses “human rights imperialism” messaging with the voices of genuine popular struggles – MintPress News is always prepared to give credit where it’s due. VICE has not only featured Walker’s coverage, but has also published the widely-shared article We Must Speak Up Against Israel’s Slaughter in Gaza.
Yet these quality products from VICE, like their seedy articles about ecstasy or THC-infused lube, do little to balance the tremendous volume of pro-imperialist propaganda regurgitated or produced by the company.
Any media conglomerate with a market value of several billion dollars can afford to speak in multiple tongues, with multiple perspectives and creative talents used to net as wide an audience-share as possible from various demographic groups.
Such is the art of scoring a high click-through rate, yielding maximum returns on investment for Vice Media’s shareholders, and remaining afloat in today’s competitive and crowded media arena.
But that isn’t journalism — that’s simply big business.
Shane Smith’s own predilection for self-promotion and hogging the limelight through fawning interviews with heads of state like former U.S. President Barack Obama, has already earned him the mockery of media-savvy audiences hungry for probing, critical journalism rather than the run-of-the-mill worship of state power we’ve come to expect from the corporate press.
VICE is now a major pillar of the imperialist media apparatus and enjoys generous investments from financiers like Bank of America; multinational entertainment conglomerates, such as The Walt Disney Company and Rupert Murdoch’s 21st Century Fox; and advertising dollars from everyone else.
Any attempt by VICE to credibly posture as a young, rebellious voice should be taken as seriously as the famously debunked claims by NBC anchor Brian Williams that he emerged unscathed in 2003 from the burning wreckage of a helicopter attack in Iraq.
As MintPress News founder and editor-in-chief Mnar Muhawesh succinctly put it in her 2016 investigation of “VICE’s Fall from Counterculture Hipster Rag to Neoliberal Government Mouthpiece:”
As a news outlet, VICE has become a tool of soft propaganda … [it] is an ideal vehicle for delivering Cold War, interventionist messages to a generation that knows better than to trust the mainstream media or the government. The problem is, that generation doesn’t seem to realize that VICE is the mainstream media and it’s pushing government narratives.”
There are newsmakers and there are newsfakers: media consumers should be on guard and never fail to notice the difference between the two.
Top Photo | Shane Smith Interviews Benjamin Netanyahu for VICE News. (Screenshot)
Elliott Gabriel is a former staff writer for teleSUR English and a MintPress News contributor based in Quito, Ecuador. He has taken extensive part in advocacy and organizing in the pro-labor, migrant justice and police accountability movements of Southern California and the state’s Central Coast.