The images are scratchy and grainy, but absolutely gripping: Somehow a prisoner in solitary confinement conducts a video chat with a reporter, describing appalling conditions in an Alabama correctional facility that has endured what looks like a state of chaos for months.
That five-minute segment in the middle of the debut episode of “Vice News Tonight,” a new weeknight program airing on HBO and available on all its platforms, shows the promise of this new alliance between an old-media giant and the upstart Vice News organization. Antonia Hylton’s report on the strike at Holman Prison and the conditions for inmates throughout the state is thorough and fair: She also talks to a former guard at the prison, who describes how difficult it was to keep order in the understaffed facility. Other sources and information-gathering bolsters her report, which means that its centerpiece — the interview with the prisoner — is far from a sensationalist detail. It adds a human dimension to a story that is admirably concise, well-paced and informative.
After kicking off the broadcast with a quick and slick roundup of headlines about everything from the Galaxy Note 7’s travails to a tuition protest in South Africa, “Vice News” showcased a series of longer pieces, and Hylton’s was by far the best. Ahead of the prison piece in Monday’s lineup was a report that represented the more slipshod and superficial kinds of reporting that Vice sometimes delivers.
Correspondent Michael Moynihan journeyed all the way to the remote ranch of conservative commentator Glenn Beck, with whom he watched Sunday’s presidential debate. Who Beck is, within the context of American politics and the conservative commentariat, was barely explained, and very little time was devoted to the two men actually watching the Donald Trump-Hillary Clinton showdown. That could have been a fascinating experience, given that Beck’s Tea Party affiliation and other conservative crusades helped pave the way for Trump’s candidacy. Unfortunately the segment ended with little insight from Beck or Moynihan about what Sunday’s St. Louis clash meant for the political landscape, or for America in general.
When Trump talked about putting Clinton in jail, Moynihan observed, “It’s a good line, though,” and Beck, who’d said voting for Clinton had “crossed his mind,” replied that was a “great line.” Not long after, the segment was over. The fascist tendencies inherent in Trump’s statement weren’t even remotely explored, nor was a Monday Trump rally that a Vice News correspondent attended explored in any depth.
The correspondent on the scene at the Pennsylvania rally, Evan McMorris-Santoro, merely made a few anodyne observations while standing near the line for admission. Trump fans were seen holding signs, but not interviewed. Whether or not news crews had been banned from the inside of the rally was addressed, but to go to the rally and then mostly ignore the people attending it didn’t make much sense.
A big part of the Vice News brand is sending correspondents into the field, but neither reporter — at the rally nor at Beck’s ranch — got much mileage out of being on the spot. In an era of shrinking news budgets, to see that travel money essentially go to waste was a bit cringe-inducing.
That said, the prison segment and another piece on the shady banking practices of Wells Fargo were ably reported, and an explainer from Arielle Duhaime-Ross about the severity of storms in the age of global warming was well-executed, if short. Other news bits scattered throughout the 23-minute broadcast helped break up the pace, and Michael Kalenderian’s brief report on a few of the previous day’s Internet trends was reasonably entertaining. But it’s hard to believe that HBO subscribers or Vice fans would reject longer, meatier segments if the subjects (i.e. Beck, the rally, the prison strike, etc.) warranted it.
Segments coming up this week will be devoted to an interview with Amanda Nguyen, an activist for sexual assault survivors; a photographer documenting the unrest in the Philippines since the ascension of President Duarte; and Syrian refugees who have made it to Vermont. Given that the inaugural broadcast was fairly evenly split between pieces that provided insight, context, and thoughtfully arranged information, and those that barely scratched the surface of the subject at hand, it’s too early to tell whether “Vice News Tonight” will become must-see viewing. But the substantial pieces certainly warrant revisiting the show in the future.
If nothing else, it’s good to know that two organizations with deep pockets are coming together in a major effort to help keep citizens — and especially younger Americans — informed. Perhaps the best thing about “Vice News Tonight” is that you don’t necessarily need an HBO subscription to view it (each episode will also be available at vicenews.com one week after it debuts on the network). Between HBO and the Internet, one hopes the best of the organization’s reporters will see their work reach a much broader audience.