VICE founder, famous for truth telling, has history of lies
Media mogul Shane Smith is often heralded for revealing unvarnished truths about the world, but the man behind the VICE empire often lies about himself and his company, sources close to Smith tell The Daily Caller.
As head of VICE, a magazine and media company he says is worth a billion dollars with hundreds of employees, Smith has become the subject of fawning profiles and interviews in the New Yorker, The Financial Times, Playboy, the New York Times, The Globe and Mail, and on Charlie Rose.
He’s even snagged his own television show on HBO, becoming the face of the network’s first foray into journalism. But a single show is not enough for Smith. “I want to build the next CNN with Vice—it’s within my grasp,” Smith told the Guardian in May.
“Who’s heard of Vice Media? Wild, interesting effort to interest millennials who don’t read or watch established media. Global success,” tweeted Rupert Murdoch after a meeting with Smith.
Murdoch’s not the only media executive to meet with Smith — representatives from Hearst, Time Warner, Bertelsmann, Condé Nast, and even Google and YouTube have all met with him. Many have partnered with Smith.
But Smith already has a well-documented reputation for stretching the truth.
“The lie that launched an empire,” reads a section title in Smith’s Globe and Mail profile, referring to his penchant for overstating VICE’s value.
“Vice was built on lies,” Wired Magazine echoed in 2007.
And sources close to Smith, including former employees and friends, tell The Daily Caller that his career has long been paved with pure untruths.
In May 2007, Smith told Patrick Sisson in a Playboy interview that he was a wartime reporter for Reuters in Bosnia.
“You wrote for Reuters in Bosnia in the 1990s,” Sisson began in the Playboy interview. “Did that experience affect how you viewed the world and the way you look at Vice?”
“Definitely,” Smith replied. “I went down to Serbia and Croatia during the war. I covered the ethnic cleansing and did a big thing on [former Yugoslavian dictator Josip Broz] Tito,” he said.
The Financial Times also credited Smith with doing some work for the Budapest Sun, in addition to Reuters.
“[Smith] moved to Hungary, freelancing for the Budapest Sun and Reuters, and carved a lucrative, yet precarious, sideline as a currency hedger,” wrote Matthew Garrahan in December 2012.
But representatives for both the Budapest Sun and Reuters told TheDC that neither company has a record of Smith ever working for them, let alone a massive story on Tito under his byline, which he would have had to write in his early twenties.
Additionally, a records search of Google, Lexis Nexis and Factiva provided no documented journalism from Smith until well past 2004.
Alex Detrick, VICE’s communications director, repeatedly confirmed that Smith had worked at Reuters and the Budapest Sun in a series of text messages, emails, and a phone call with TheDC. Detrick did not reply when asked directly why it was that Reuters and the Budapest Sun have no record of Smith’s relationship with either organization.
According to friends, Smith was actually teaching a Berlitz English course in Hungary at the time.
“He was teaching English in the mid-90’s,” childhood friend Patrick Bannister told TheDC in an interview. “I don’t think he was working for Reuters, but you’d have to check with him.”
“No way was he at Reuters,” agreed a VICE insider, “He called himself a poet or something.”
Smith did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this report.
In the Playboy interview, Smith went on to criticize the journalists he said he saw in Bosnia as a Reuters correspondent.
“When I was there, you’d see the Croatian stringers go out and get the story and tell the Americans what happened, and then they would stand in front of a burning car and say this is what is going on,” Smith said. “It was total bullshit. These huge media machines are cranking out this shit.”
That characterization belies the risk that reporters truly faced in Bosnia, according to Smith’s critics. Producer David Kaplan of ABC News, for instance, was killed by a sniper bullet while traveling in a motorcade of journalists. More than 50 journalists were killed in the former Yugoslavia between 1991 and 1994, according to The New York Times.
And Smith’s attacks on professional journalists — a regular occurrence — don’t always sit well with those closest to him.
“Smith’s whole thing is to criticize the work of other journalists,” says a longtime insider with VICE who declined to speak on the record. “He’s dismissive of real journalists and doesn’t understand that their methodology has a purpose of actually finding out what’s true, rather than just hyping things.”
David Carr of the New York Times publicly criticized Smith on video for that anti-journalist attitude in the 2011 documentary “Page One: Inside the New York Times.” Smith, interviewed by Carr, criticized the Times for “writing about surfing” and not the human tragedy of Liberia he saw when he went there for “The Vice Guide to Liberia,” an online video.
“I’m sitting there going like, ‘You know? I’m not going to talk about surfing, I’m going to talk about cannibalism, because that fucks me up,’” Smith said.
“Just a sec, time out,” Carr interrupted. “Before you ever went there, we’ve had reporters there reporting on genocide after genocide,” he fumed. “Just because you put on a fucking safari helmet and looked at some poop doesn’t give you the right to insult what we do. So, continue.”
“I’m just saying that I’m not a journalist. I’m not there to report…” Smith replied.
“Yeah, obviously,” Carr shot back.
That exchange didn’t make it into Carr’s final 2010 article. Instead, he wrote a glowing profile of Smith, praising his videographic work as “pretty rugged, pretty wonderful,” especially his work on North Korea.
Only later did it emerge that Carr’s daughter, Erin Lee Carr, was hired by VICE after the scene was shot, but before the Times documentary came out. In interviews with TheDC, multiple VICE insiders suggested that Smith was trying to curry favor with Carr and the Times. The younger Carr did not respond to a request for comment.
Smith presents himself as having mastered multiple media, chief among them online video, but he got his start generally in what he calls the “holy grail of film” with his 2007 movie, “Heavy Metal in Baghdad.”
“We made [the movie about Baghdad’s only heavy metal band] for an online piece 20 minutes long,” he said to Charlie Rose. “Our editor said ‘Hey, this is a feature film’ and we said ‘OK cut it,’ and he cut it and it cost us $25,000. And it went on to win critic’s choice at Toronto Film Festival. It won best doc at Berlin Film Festival. Went on to be in 84 film festivals and we made a lot of money out of it.”
He’s repeated variations of that story to comedian Joe Rogan and Adweek, but some light research reveals “Heavy Metal in Baghdad” — while screened at both festivals — never won either of those awards.
“We don’t have a special category for ‘Best Documentary,’” although selected documentaries are shown there, explained Christine Maslok of the Berlin Film Festival.
The Critic’s Choice Award at the Toronto Film Festival also doesn’t exist, according to a representative from the group.
Nor was the movie screened at 84 film festivals, as Smith has claimed, according to IMDB or to those who worked on the movie.
Smith’s most famous work concerns the hermit kingdom — a 2008 film called “The Vice Guide to North Korea.” VICE has done three documentaries about North Korea. Smith stars in two of them.
Smith has often stated that he had to bribe his way into the country. He even told Charlie Rose that North Korea is the “holy grail of journalism because you can’t get in.”
Not so, says Andray Abrahamian, a North Korea expert who has been there ten or eleven times and runs Choson Exchange, a Singaporean organization dedicated to educating North Koreans.
In the film, Smith “continually emphasizes how he bribed his way in. To me it sounds very much like paying a visa fee,” said Abrahamian, who wrote a lengthy article debunking many of the claims Smith makes in the first North Korea film.
Abrahamian also challenged Smith’s account of the country’s Mass Games athletic spectacle, which Smith describes as “the most insane thing you’ve ever seen in your life.” Abrahamian wrote of Smith’s description:
In what appears to be a curious lie, in an intro-article hosted on VBS and CNN, Smith claims that “the fifteen of us who made up the audience watched from a marble dais. We were the only spectators.” Yet two shots show thousands of other audience members (pt. 3, 12, 14 mins). Did he mean fifteen foreigners? Or fifteen people in the most expensive section, where Kim Jong-Il and Madeline Albright watched the games together?
“[Smith] sounds like an incredible bad-ass, fighting the man at every turn. [But] he comes across as kind of a chump. He paid for a tour that thousands of people go on,” said Abrahamian, who sees Smith’s whole trip as part of his general “hyperbole and self-aggrandizement.”
“[North Korea] is a strange culture, so he can get away with it. It suits his vision of himself,” Abrahamian said.
“It’s easy to see why Shane loves North Korea,” said a former employee. “He’s a cult leader who has built a Potemkin village where everything is smoke and mirrors.”
Smith’s integrity issues have extended to his personal life, as well.
He told an artist ex-girlfriend at her gallery opening that he was dying of a mystery illness and maintained the story for over a year.
“He would repeatedly tell her that any level of stress could kill him,” says a former VICE employee. “He kept using the phrase ‘doctor’s order’ to excuse whatever he was doing, like taking phone calls, or spending time with her would kill him. In reality, he was messing around.”
Reached for comment, the ex-girlfriend, who asked not to be named, confirmed the story and said that she eventually found out through social media that Smith was seeing other women when he said he was going to the doctor’s office.
Smith told Charlie Rose that he ran away from home at age 13 — instead, he moved in with his father after getting into a fight with his step dad, say longtime friends who knew him at the time. He also told Rose that his father “built an electric car that won the first—one of the first electric car races,” but that, too, wasn’t true. The first electric car races were decades earlier and in the United States, not Smith’s native Canada.
A Canadian journalist, who also asked not to be identified, described Smith telling her that he had been in a gang in his teenage years, which she later discovered from interviewing family and friends, was “bogus.” The piece she was working on was published, but didn’t include anything about Smith’s childhood.
Childhood friend Bannister describes Smith as prone to “exaggeration.”
“He is the type of guy, you will do something together and he will be telling someone a story about what you guys did. It will always sound far more exciting than what actually happened,” said Bannister in an interview with TheDC.
“It’s not that he’s making things up. He’s a great storyteller,” Bannister said. “The mystique is built into his character.”
VICE co-founder Gavin McInnes, who declined to be interviewed for this article, once referred to his ex-partner as “Bullshitter Shane.” The two split over “creative differences” in 2004 and some perceived racially-insensitive comments from McInnes which appeared in the New York Times.
Smith often exaggerates about the size and success of VICE, according to former employees.
When the first of the company’s profile pieces came out saying how much money VICE was making, Smith was worried that the employees — many of whom work below market rate — would be upset, said a former employee. “He told us that there’s always a difference between perception and reality and that that was important to help VICE grow,” the employee said.
Smith has routinely inflated the number of people who work for him internationally. He boasted to the Financial Times in December that the network has over “800 employees in 34 countries” and, according to one former VICE employee, “this figure is ridiculously false.” VICE told the Globe and Mail in May that it has “more than 1,100 employees across the globe.”
“We sabotaged every interview with bullshit,” wrote McInnes in his 2012 memoir, “How to Piss in Public: From Teenage Rebellion to the Hangover of Adulthood.” “When asked about Vice’s future, Shane told the reporter we had just been bought by local dot-com billionaire Richard Szalwinski.” The New York Times fell for it, reporting that business deal faithfully in 2007.
“We didn’t think anything of this stupid lie,” McInnes recalls, since “it was just one of many, but a few hours after the article was published, we met the man himself.”
Szalwinski, impressed by their bravado — the story goes — bought a 25 percent stake of VICE for a supposed million dollars and things started going well. But Wired Magazine reported in 2007 that “Szalwinski doesn’t remember reading the article before giving them money. Oh, and the actual amount? More like a few hundred thousand, he says.”
Smith repeatedly called up friends in those days and screamed into the receiver “We’re going to be rich,” over and over again, say friends from the period.
But now, VICE insiders paint a picture of amateurishness.
“It is amateur hour over there. They are amateur people trying to portray themselves to others as news people,” said a former employee. “They always hype everything. It’s always ‘Holy shit. Everything is so crazy. You have to punch everything up.’”
Last December, VICE posted a photograph of editor-in-chief Rocco Castoro with fugitive John McAfee with the Exif metadata — longitudinal coordinates — that revealed McAfee’s location and led to his arrest in Guatemala.
Rather than fess up to having gotten their source arrested, VICE photographer Robert King claimed on his Facebook page and Twitter that he had altered the metadata when he hadn’t, essentially covering for a man wanted on murder charges.
A few journalists ran stories mocking VICE — “Dear Journalists at Vice and Elsewhere, Here Are Some Simple Ways Not To Get Your Source Arrested” read one headline from Forbes.
But Smith’s most recent run-in with the truth may be among the most glaring of his career.
During his May 24, 2013 interview with Charlie Rose, Smith revealed that VICE had conducted an interview with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, to be shown during the HBO series.
“Well, we have the interview,” Smith told Rose. “You have the interview?” Rose responded, surprised. “Yes,” Smith repeated, “we show him in the documentary.”
“[I] didn’t realize you guys had an interview of some substance,” Rose said.
“Yes we — we — we talked to him and we — there are a bunch of people who talked to him,” Smith insisted.
The season finale aired weeks ago. The Kim Jong Un interview — or even a characterization of that interview — never aired.
The show’s been renewed for a second season.