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At Vice, A New York Times Exposé Looms

22/11/2017 5:18 AM IST
Vice internal video
Vice CEO Shane Smith, in a video shown to employees Friday, confirms that he does, in fact, have hands.

A little after 11 a.m. Friday, Vice Media CEO Shane Smith beamed into the Vice offices in the form of a slickly produced 45-minute video. It was his state of the union presentation. As a pre-recorded Smith put on his most earnest face and promised employees a new era of transparency, “clear lines of reporting” and accountability the likes of which Vice had never seen, staffers were learning from their phones that Jason Mojica, the head of Vice’s documentary films unit, had been suspended in the wake of a Daily Beast article two days prior that detailed the company’s indifference to sexual harassment claims. Mojica himself had learned about his suspension just slightly earlier, because Variety had called to ask him for comment

Staffers were already furious about the meeting. They’d hoped it would address the recent sexual harassment claims, perhaps even give some indication of what the company was doing to regain their trust. The video did nothing of the sort. It opened with a jokey “Desus & Mero” sketch, followed by a supercut of various employees — filmed at least a month prior — asking questions about largely unrelated issues. 

“I think by about 10 minutes in, people started to realize they just weren’t going to talk about harassment at all,” one Vice employee told HuffPost. 

“There was a hope that they would at least make the accusations a small focus,” said another current employee who asked to not be named. “Like, give us the outline of what steps are being taken, and give us some transparency about the process even if you can’t talk about specifics.” Yet another confirmed the Daily Beast’s report that toward the end of the video an employee stood and shouted, “When the fuck are they going to address sexual harassment?” before walking out amid applause. Smith, for his part, wasn’t in the New York or the Los Angeles office that day. As one staffer noted, “They all thought it was going to go well, so why be there?”

HuffPost spoke with seven current Vice employees, all of whom spoke of mounting frustrations with Vice management that have been compounded by the threat of a Times story that’s been in the works for what appears to be months. They’ve been granted anonymity in order to speak freely about their current employer without fear of retaliation.

In the past, these quarterly state-of-the-union addresses would involve little more than Smith talking into a camera, flipping through slides about growth and offering a few encouraging words to his growing staff. This time, though, the Vice state-of-the-union video took over a month and a half to produce, included interviews with both the staff and senior management and acted as the announcement for a new, vaguely explained all-female advisory board that includes Gloria Steinem and former Michelle Obama chief of staff Tina Tchen, among other high-profile names. In a vacuum, and particularly if your taste runs toward high-production-value infomercials starring doughy rich men and their ferns, there’s nothing inherently wrong with the video, a copy of which was viewed by HuffPost. But for Vice employees, whipsawed as they are between last week’s damning account of harassment and neglect and a supposedly imminent New York Times article that employees are certain will be far, far worse, the presentation was a nightmare. It was denial and obliviousness, in high-def.

“How do you expect to regain the trust of your staff if you spend months and months on this kind of video, and then when this horrible major news breaks, you don’t even bother addressing it in this big moment when everyone’s listening?” said one current employee.

The Daily Beast article, based on accounts from over a dozen women, depicted a culture at Vice that fostered sexist comments, inappropriate touching and pressure for women to have sex with their superiors. When some of the women tried to report the behavior, they were effectively told to suck it up. 

In response to a request for comment on Shane Smith’s handling of the past few days, a Vice spokesperson said, “Our ongoing focus is to take all necessary actions to ensure Vice is a safe and inclusive workplace where all of our employees can flourish — one that is free of any bias, disrespectful behavior, sexual harassment, and assault — and are investigating all allegations of inappropriate conduct. We are working closely with both our employees and our advisory board.” 

Mojica has not responded to requests for comment.

The Awl news site was the first to bring the rumors about the Times story out in the open last week. Employees at Vice have been whispering about it for much longer than that. Senior management certainly seems to have known about it for at least as long as it took to plan and produce Friday’s video. As one employee put it, “Upper management hasn’t addressed the Times story at all, but everyone knows it’s coming. I mean, you don’t announce Gloria Steinem over the Daily Beast story.” 

“That story is a shadow over all of us,” said another employee. “Every day you think, is this the day that it’s going to break?” One said that “there is a sense of, like, is this going to be so bad and is the company’s response going to be so insufficient that we’ll have to quit? It’s making it impossible to focus.”

It’s hard to know exactly how damaging the Times story will be or if it will ever see the light of day, but we do know that at least some of the reporting has focused on Smith, Vice’s notoriously “edgy” past and possible lawsuits. One former Vice employee who’d been contacted several weeks ago by the Times’ Emily Steel, Bill O’Reilly’s least favorite reporter, gave us a rundown of some of the questions she’d been asked: “What was the culture like back then? What was my impression of Shane? How much was he in the office? Did anything ever happen to me? Do I know of any settlements? Was there HR when I worked there?”

Steel told HuffPost she could not comment on her reporting.

Many of the issues touched on in those questions now fall under the remit of the newly formed all-female council. In damage-control meetings with various editors in New York on Monday, Smith elaborated on what he’d described in the video as a board that “has teeth” that “will make sure we’re making the right decisions.” According to multiple employees, those decisions involve pay parity, revising its nontraditional workplace agreement, overhauling Human Resources (including mandatory HR training) and improving the parental leave policy. Crucially, Smith also revealed that Vice would be conducting an outside audit of any HR complaints, past or present.

The employees we spoke to were hopeful after Monday’s promise of change but, because of their experiences with Smith, only cautiously so. “Shane returns to the same analogies and the same rhetoric that’s lost its bite,” one employee explained. “It’s not enough to talk about how you will apologize for the past and how you want to make the future better. It’s not enough to say that, now that you have daughters, you think differently. There’s been a serious disconnect between what he thinks is effective leadership — even just in terms of language — and what we actually need to hear.”

After the disastrous state-of-the-union meeting Friday, senior editorial members from across the sites, which include Vice.com, Noisey, Motherboard and Broadly, began drafting a statement to collectively denounce both Vice management’s refusal to reckon with its problematic past and its insufficient response to the recent sexual harassment claims. Waypoint, Vice’s gaming site, had published its own statement the night before. Vice executives quickly asked for a meeting. Smith, not being in the office, had to call in from wherever he was (no employees we spoke with knew his whereabouts). 

While Smith apparently tried to emphasize that Vice was going to work toward more transparency, he also emphasized that certain issues — like the nontraditional workplace agreement cited in the Daily Beast article, which essentially asks employees to agree not to be offended by “highly provocative material” — were standard across all of media. (The workplace agreement is not an industry standard.) “They were pivoting really quickly back and forth between being very defensive and very open,” one employee noted. 

After quite a bit of discussion, a group of 22 people, including editors-in-chief, union representatives, managing editors and even Vice’s global head of content, settled on the following internal statement that went out to the staff via email:

Last night, EICs and senior editors met to discuss the company’s inadequate response to sexual harassment and abuse. We hoped today’s State of the Union would speak to these ongoing problems, but the company’s internal and external communications have failed to address the concerns of its employees. The company has also not acknowledged its past in any meaningful way.

We all agree the current situation needs to change.

After the State of the Union, a group of 22 people in editorial and the digital video department including Sara Rodriguez, Derek Mead, Dory Carr-Harris, and Ciel Hunter met with Shane Smith, Suroosh Alvi, Sarah Broderick, Andrew Creighton, Jon Lutzky, Susan Tohyama, Alex Detrick, and Ariel Wengroff to discuss how our company is dealing with current and past misconduct, and how to change VICE’s culture for the better. The conversation was a first step. VICE executive management has committed to better informing all VICE employees of the processes through which sexual harassment complaints can be filed, to providing more consistent training, and to taking direct action against offenders.

After Waypoint posted a statement last night, members of all verticals discussed whether we should put out a more collective and comprehensive statement. But the handful of employees in that meeting can’t speak for all employees across all departments of this company globally, and we realized that any action we take must be informed by your input. Given this, we decided not to release a statement at this time, and to open up a dialogue.

We encourage you to reach out to managers at this company, including any of those undersigned, to weigh in on changes you want to see here and issues you want addressed. From there, we will work with the new HR leadership to put together a list of changes that must happen.

Together we will hold executive management accountable. All of us deserve an environment where we feel safe to do work we are proud of.

Signed,

Adam Banicki
Dory Carr-Harris
Mike Darling
Greg Eggebeen
Emilie Friedlander
Olivia Gattuso
Mark Guiducci
Helen Hollyman
Ciel Hunter
Ellis Jones
Jason Koebler
Emanuel Maiberg
Ryan McCarthy
Derek Mead
Eric Nusbaum
Ankita Rao
Sara Rodriguez
Lindsay Schrupp
Jonathan Smith
Eric Sundermann
Matt Taylor
Austin Walker

About an hour later, Smith followed up with his own email:

My apologies for the Friday evening note, but I wanted to address some of the feedback we have been getting on today’s State of the Union. While we attempted to cover a wide range of issues impacting the company, I’m sorry that we missed the mark, especially when it came to clearly addressing issues around sexual harassment at VICE.

I’d like to make it abundantly clear here and now: the behavior outlined in the recent Daily Beast article is unacceptable, and the fact that anything like this could happen at VICE is my and my senior management’s responsibility. VICE does not tolerate sexual harassment, abusive behavior, assault or retaliation, and just as we have in connection with the allegations in the Daily Beast, we will investigate and discipline inappropriate behavior of any kind. We will continue to investigate all allegations brought to the company’s attention, enlisting outside independent counsel when necessary.

We’ve built this company by hiring the best and most talented voices of a generation. It’s my job to make sure that everyone who walks through the door is treated respectfully and has a chance to thrive without intimidation or harassment.

Following the State of the Union, I spoke with the heads of editorial to express that going forward we are committed to working lockstep with all of you to improve VICE’s workplace culture. This includes enacting everything that we outlined today, continuing to communicate with you about these issues in the coming days, and discussing how we can best solve them.

Yes, we can change the world, but first we have to start at home.

Thank you for your time and your patience.

Shane

Smith’s email only enraged an already livid staff, according to Vice staffers. The issue wasn’t just that the video didn’t address sexual harassment; it’s that in neither the presentation nor his subsequent email did Smith seem to understand what the issue was.

“Yeah, great, you’ve made something that’s really beautiful,” one employee said. “You’ve made something that’s well-produced. But the heart of it is toxic, and that’s one of the fears about all of us at Vice. Is the work we’re doing being undermined by the culture at Vice and this reputation that it feels like Shane refuses to reckon with?”  

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