THE BILL ROSENDAHL PUBLIC SERVICE AWARDClick here for previous winners of the Bill Rosendahl Public Service Award
Vice News, the Recipient of the Press Club’s Public Service Award, Does Things Its Own Way, and Gets Results
By Lucas Shaw
Shane Smith hosts a regular news show, but he has no illusions of being the next Walter Cronkite. Instead, he’s trying to create a new type of newscast, one that forgoes the longstanding tradition of dispassionate, objective reporting and replaces it with a more active style of service journalism.
It’s a unique body of work that led the Los Angeles Press Club to honor Smith and Vice with this year’s Public Service Award, bestowed annually for contributions to civic life.
Smith, a New Yorker by way of Ottawa, is the co-founder and CEO of Vice Media, a company that began as an alternative magazine in 1994 called Voice of Montreal. It soon morphed into Vice, a free magazine specializing in humorous writing and cultural criticism with a distinctly anti-authoritarian flair.
Over the past two decades, as Smith and his team pushed into journalism, Vice has transformed yet again, becoming a multi-platform global news outlet that produces thousands of hours of video for its websites, YouTube, Snapchat, HBO and TV networks in Europe and Canada. Soon Vice will have its own U.S. TV channel.
The company has never abandoned the prurient and sensational. Recent shows on its website include stories about man boobs, famous stoners, and taco and burrito emojis.
But there’s a serious side that sets Vice apart. With thousands of contributors around the world and bureaus in more than 30 countries, the company sends reporters to some of the most dangerous war zones. Its troops interview dictators and cover stories neglected by many other news outlets.
It’s unconventional, yes, but it’s finding an audience. It’s also finding people who believe in its future—Vice’s popularity among younger viewers has convinced investors it is worth more than $2 billion.
“We’re not coming at it from a straight journalistic point of view, we actually go to a place and press record,” Smith said in a March interview. “We see how the story takes us. If the story takes us into a different place, then we follow that. We have young people filming, picking stories and continuing to give us that freedom.”
Vice has had a reporter stationed in Russia and the Ukraine since 2014, filing more than 100 dispatches. He continued his job even after he was kidnapped.
The company secured footage from within North Korea by bringing along basketball player Dennis Rodman, and embedded a reporter with the Islamic State militant group. The latter piece was cited by almost every major news outlet, and earned Vice a 2014 Peabody Award, one of two it received.
That is as many as CNN won last year. The comparison is fitting, as Vice partnered with the cable news giant in January 2010, an alliance surprising enough that the late New York Times media critic David Carr famously asked Smith, “What the fuck is going on that you’re doing business with CNN?”
Carr, who died in February, grew to embrace Vice over time, and praised its piece on the Islamic State for demonstrating “extraordinary access and footage.”
“In a world that is hostile to journalism in all its forms, where dangerous conflicts seem to jump off every other day, you can’t be uppity about where your news comes from,” Carr wrote in August 2014. “I’m just glad that someone’s willing to do the important work of bearing witness, the kind that can get you killed if something goes wrong.”
Vice’s piece on the Islamic State also attracted the interest of Richard Plepler, the chief executive officer of HBO. Vice already produced a weekly newsmagazine for the network featuring reports on the American military industrial complex, the conflict in Syria and climate change.
Plepler wanted more, and will now pay Vice to produce a daily newscast and a number of specials for HBO, exploring everything from revolutionary cancer treatments to transsexuals in Iran.
The special “Killing Cancer” signals Vice’s ambition to combine journalism with service. In addition to shining a light on a potential cure for the disease, the company worked with the Mayo Clinic on a fundraising campaign. It pulled in more than $2 million, including a $1 million matching gift from Smith.
“Going forward Vice will not only remain committed to this type of story but also helping wherever we can,” Smith said in May.
This year, Vice began dedicating weeks to specific subjects such as mental health. It also investigated the lives of detainees at Guantanamo Bay in a project that featured essays, poems, drawings and satire written by some of those held captive at the prison.
All of these stories had in common the same edgy editorial voice that defines the brand. Vice is not a bystander. It is part of the fight.
Smith took that fight on in Vice magazine’s first environmental issue, writing, “Because there are entities out there, Big Oil, petrochemical companies, etc., actively spending billions of dollars on media to obfuscate the truth, we have to fight that, and that’s what this issue is. Vice is committed to this battle, and we are putting our editorial where our mouth is.”
Smith’s ambitions continue to grow. He has broadened Vice Media by creating a number of distinct brands, including Motherboard, which reports on technology, and Noisey, which covers music. In December, the company partnered with the Knight Foundation to invest $500,000 to train reporters at City University of New York’s Graduate School of Journalism to adopt new ways of storytelling.
The imprimatur of CNN and HBO has helped Vice News earn the trust of major advertisers, media critics and viewers, while maintaining its reputation as a youthful, transgressive media company.
JOURNALIST AND FORMER CALIFORNIA FIRST LADY MARIA SHRIVER RECEIVES THE LOS ANGELES PRESS CLUB’S PUBLIC SERVICE PRIZE
BY ALEX BEN BLOCK
Although Maria Shriver already had a distinguished career in journalism, her life changed in 2003 when she woke up to find herself First Lady of California. Determined not to let her role be simply symbolic, she created pioneering programs and initiatives to help the working poor, military families and the disabled, and to champion women. She inherited the Governor’s Conference for Women but soon realized there was little research into the lives of modern women. She discovered that the last national survey had been conducted nearly half a century earlier by Eleanor Roosevelt. Those results were presented in fall 1963 to her uncle, President John F. Kennedy.
“But one week later he was killed,” said Shriver, “so it kind of never went anywhere.” Shriver set out to uncover the status of women today. What she found shocked her. “I was surprised by how many women were actually the primary or co-bread winners for their family,” recalled Shriver. “It surprised me that only one- fifth of American families now had a man that went off to work and a woman who stayed home, and that image had not really caught up.” As first lady she could no longer practice journalism. Instead, she created a new vehicle.
“The Shriver Report is an initiative I started when I didn’t have a journalistic platform, and it has continued,” she said. “I think journalism is at its best when it informs, and it aspires and it ignites you to do something. That’s why I went into journalism, and I think that’s what the Shriver Report does.”
That focus, and her career, has earned Shriver the Los Angeles Press Club’s Public Service Award for Journalistic Contributions to Civic Life. Those kinds of accolades are not surprising to Alexandra Wallace, Senior Vice President of NBC News. “Maria has made it her life’s mission to shine a light on issues that matter most to women, especially those in need,” Wallace said. “She is a trailblazer in this space and we’re so proud of the work she’s doing.” Another admirer is Oprah Winfrey, who praised Shriver for “reviving old-fashioned solid journalism and igniting important conversations about the changing roles of women and men in our society. I was profoundly affected by the eye-opening documentary she recently produced about families living ‘paycheck to paycheck’ She has her finger on the pulse of what really matters to people and is able to document it in a way that brings value and true public service.”
Maria Owings Shriver was born into a family of wealth, but one that also taught public service. Her mother Eunice Kennedy Shriver, sister of President Kennedy, Sen. Robert F. Kennedy and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, was an advocate for children’s health and disability issues, as well as the founder of Special Olympics, a cause her children and grandchildren continue to support. Maria Shriver was born in Chicago but grew up around Washington, D.C., where her father helped found the Peace Corps. He was also an architect of Lyndon Johnson’s War On Poverty and ran for vice president (’72) and president (’76). It was during that first campaign that his only daughter discovered her interest in journalism.
“I grew up with two people who were what I call Architects of Change,” said Shriver. “I never heard them talk about money, but every day they talked about what they were doing to change the world. They challenged us kids to think about what we could do. My parents drilled that down big time into all five of us.”
After graduating from Georgetown University in 1977, Shriver landed a job at CBS News. The first thing they gave her, recalled Shriver, “was a binder on ethics and standards that scared the living daylights out of me.”
She found a mentor in award-winning CBS producer Roberta Hollander, who more than 30 years later helps edit The Shriver Report. Shriver later moved to NBC and worked there until she became first lady. She returned to the network in 2013 as a special correspondent. Her work has garnered numerous awards, and she has been behind acclaimed documentaries and half a dozen best-selling books. Hollander said Shriver uses her “reporting and story-telling skills to uncover and discover what’s going on in this country, what needs to be changed, and how to do it. I really believe that not just because of who she is, but also because of her character and standards and storytelling skill, people all across this country pay attention when she shines a light on injustice and inequality.”
On Jan. 14 of this year, Shriver received another kind of honor. She was invited to the White House by President Obama to discuss “The Shriver Report: A Woman’s Nation Pushes Back from the Brink.” Some critics sneered that Shriver was just seeking more government welfare programs. She was unfazed by the critics.
“Anybody who said that didn’t read the report and didn’t listen to me,” responded Shriver. “People said, ‘Oh she’s just putting on the mantle of her father, screaming about big government.’ But what I clearly said was there are things each and every one of us can to do create a more compassionate, caring, conscious culture and country and companies. We can put the care in career.”
That certainly is how Maria Shriver has led her life.
‘SoCal Connected’ Team Earns Public Service Award for Exposing Staggering Expenditures at a City Agency
BY JON REGARDIE
When Karen Foshay, a producer with the KCET show “SoCal Connected,” started poking around the operations of the Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles (HACLA), she had no idea that she was about to dump a mountain of work on herself
and a half-dozen co-workers. She couldn’t fathom the gross spending on luxury products and meals the team would expose. There was no way she could predict how her investigation would benefit some of the city’s poorest residents.
Yet that is exactly what happened when the 20-year TV news veteran began looking into a large if rarely examined city agency. “I reached out to a few sources and found out that there were some unhappy workers there,” she recalled of her initial explorations. “I filled out my first public records request in October 2010, and we had to fight vigorously to get any response.”
That opened the doors to what would become a 12-minute expose, “The Junketeer,” in March 2011, followed nine months later by another punishing 15-minute report, “Government Gone Wild.” The facts KCET revealed were shocking: Rudy Montiel, president and CEO of the agency in charge of pro- viding housing for thousands of poor individuals and families, earned $450,000 a year and received perks including 10 weeks of vacation and a car. He traveled extensively, attending 28 conferences and junkets in one calendar year; by contrast, the show reported, Boston’s housing director attended three conferences.
More astounding was the HACLA spending that taxpayers were covering. In poring over six years of documents, the “SoCal Connected” team found that outrageous expenditures were an everyday occur- rence. They uncovered a receipt for a $2,200 lunch for four executives. They found that HACLA brass spent $4,500 on Land's End sweaters. The agency's head of media and government relations had two purported Saturday night business meetings in one month at Ruth's Christ Steakhouse. One employee spent $500 on an agency charge card on two stuffed pink elephants.
Then came the HACLA officials’ attempts to defend the practices. Montiel in March told the cameras that the expenses were justified because he had turned around an underperforming agency. In December another executive, Ken Simmons, claimed he was following Montiel’s orders and that the agency was “flush with cash” at the time.
The damage was done. Montiel was fired, as were two agency commissioners. City Controller Wendy Greuel began an extensive audit of HACLA and U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley launched a federal investiga- tion. New spending standards were put in place, allowing the valuable resources to go where they were intended to housing Los Angeles’ poor.
“The Junketeer” and “Government Gone Wild” were rare examples of long-form television investiga- tive journalism on local matters. The reports have earned KCET the Public Service Award from the Los Angeles Press Club. The prize is shared by Foshay, “SoCal Connected” executive producer Bret Mar- cus, correspondent Laurel Erickson, producer Rocio Zamora, associate producers Miguel Contreras and Lata Pandya and editor Alberto Arce.
Viewers of the two episodes saw correspondent Laurel Erickson operate like a pitbull with a microphone, refusing to let the HACLA executives get off easy when they tried to evade her questions. What the audience didn’t see was the group effort that went into creating the reports.
“It’s a very small staff and it operated like an old- fashioned newsroom,” said Erickson, a veteran Los Angeles reporter known for her never-back-down ap- proach. “There were people doing long hours. There was team spirit.”
The sentiment is echoed by Marcus, who also serves as KCET’s chief content officer. He noted that the staff would routinely work late into the night.
“Sometimes in the middle of the newsroom when everyone else went home these boxes of paper would emerge from dark corners,” he recalled. “My office was three doors down from Karen’s. I could tell if she was having a good or bad night based on the cackling coming from her office when she would find some outrageous expense that was totally unsupportable.”
Tracking the expenses and revealing that HACLA spent millions to fight whistleblowers and wrongful termination lawsuits (KCET reported that Montiel fired three HACLA directors of internal control; two sued) was only part of the challenge. The team needed to turn all the numbers and piles of receipts into visually appealing television.
Foshay is quick to credit graphic designer Robert Vega, whose work included placing the headshots of four executives on a spinning dinner table to com- municate the meal overspending. Her praise extends to Marcus (“He gave us the resources to do this”) and Arce, the editor, who kept the pace crisp.
The team also took advantage of new media re- sources, creating an online database complete with scanned receipts.
“You could go in, type in someone’s name and see all their purchases,” said Foshay. “We wanted this to be interactive. We wanted people to see where their taxpayer dollars were being spent.”
MAKING A DIFFERENCE
Generally, said Marcus, “SoCal Connected” stories take a week or two to prepare, and the average 15- to 20-minute report might require a month of work.
The March episode, by contrast, required six months of investigation and reporting (team mem- bers worked on other stories at the same time). It was a similar timeframe for the December follow-up.
Marcus, Foshay and Erickson have long track records in television journalism, and all have received numerous industry accolades and honors. Still, for people who have seemingly seen it all, the HACLA expose offered new surprises.
“It seemed unbelievable, especially when you con- sider this was a time when Americans were losing their jobs and houses,” said Erickson. “The most surprising thing to me was the disconnect between how this appeared, what it was, and the state of the taxpayers and residents in this economic crash.”
Marcus pointed to the human angle, or rather, the seeming lack of humanity exhibited by the perpetrators.
“I don’t think anyone ever said to us, ‘I’m sorry, I should not have done this.’ It’s really sad,” he said. “It was sort of remarkable to me that nobody apologized.”
Although the second show aired more than six months ago, the “SoCal Connected” team has changed the way the Los Angeles media views HACLA. No longer is the agency ignored.
Similarly, there is no denying that the staff made a difference in the lives of some of the city’s most disenfranchised residents. It’s a point that hits home.
“It was a window on the world that we should see more often,” said Erickson.
Added Foshay, “I think that’s why we get into this business, to hopefully make some sort of impact and to lay out the facts and see what happens. There had been so many complaints over the years by workers and tenants. Over the years they felt their voices were not heard and that they were retaliated against. That’s always a great payoff to a story.”
She pauses and adds, “That’s great.”
Jon Regardie is a member of the Board of Directors of the Los Angeles Press Club.
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