It’s long been silly to deny the growth of Vice, which started as a drugs-and-sex rag from Canada but has, in recent years, partnered with CNN and HBO on a variety of news documentaries from Iraq to Chernobyl, Liberia to North Korea. And while the brand, which sold a 5 percent stake to Rupert Murdoch last year, has been accused of diluting its journalism with cool-kid poses and stunts — it was Vice’s HBO show that played matchmaker for Dennis Rodman and Kim Jong-un, for instance — to write off the work as simply disaster tourism for kicks is to downplay the very real risks involved in covering war zones and authoritarian regimes.
The capture of Vice News correspondent Simon Ostrovsky by pro-Russian forces in Ukraine, then, is a potential turning point for the network, its legitimacy tougher to deny in the face of actual consequences for committing acts of journalism. The U.S. State Department, for one, is on Vice’s side.
“We are deeply concerned about the reports of a kidnapping of a U.S. citizen journalist in Slovyansk, Ukraine, reportedly at the hands of pro-Russian separatists,” said State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki in a statement on Wednesday. “We call on Russia to use its influence with these groups to secure the immediate and safe release of all hostages in eastern Ukraine. We have also raised our concerns with Ukrainian officials as they work with local authorities to try to de-escalate the security situation in and around Slovyansk.”
A spokesperson for pro-Russian insurgents said Ostrovsky is “suspected of bad activities,” the AP reported, but she insisted, “He’s with us. He’s fine.” Speaking to the Daily Beast, she added, “He was not reporting in a correct way.”
He was, however, reporting in the Vice and Ostrovsky way, which one reporter described as “poking the bear with a video camera and seeing what reaction he gets.” A dual citizen of the U.S. and Israel, Ostrovsky has spent weeks in Ukraine aggressively covering the conflict by getting in the middle of it. In one clip, he approaches the Russian insurgents only to get roughed up. “Stand fucking still,” the soldier tells him as the camera gets jostled. “I said stand still. I’ll shoot to kill!” (The video has since been made private by the Vice News YouTube channel, but can be seen here.)
In the last month alone, Vice News has released 28 dispatches in its “Russian Roulette: The Invasion of Ukraine” series, spearheaded by Ostrovsky, who has reported previously in the Middle East and Asia for other outlets including BBC, Al Jazeera, and the Moscow Times. This time around, his first-person clips from Ukraine have been aired repeatedly on CNN and MSNBC as a more raw, on-the-ground take than the networks’ own footage.
In an interview with the Huffington Post last month, Ostrovsky said he’s “trying to tell the same story everybody is trying to tell” in the region. “It’s a just a difference in approach,” he said. “I just try to tell what it’s like on the ground from my own perspective, from having been there and seen what I’ve seen.”
It’s not the neat headlines and tight stories we’re used to with cable news, but it’s a method Vice is counting on to reach a younger audience, especially online. Slice-of-life reporting, but in extreme or foreign situations is the M.O., and it is attracting viewers: The Ukraine series has about 7.7 million combined views on YouTube so far.
Part of the appeal, of course, is the gonzo approach and hint of danger. In his last tweets before being captured, Ostrovsky called out threats toward the press by the pro-Russian forces:
Sloviansk pro-Russia 'mayor' threatens to throw journalist out for "provocative" question about former mayor being held under guard— Simon Ostrovsky (@SimonOstrovsky) April 21, 2014
Weeks earlier, during the “shoot to kill” run-in, Ostrovsky mused about how filming everything, even the clashes he’s involved in, serves as a sort of insurance policy. In that situation, a second cameraman had escaped with the footage. “If they held us for a long time,” Ostrovsky told HuffPost, “it was going to get out very quickly and make them look bad.”
Update: Ostrovsky was released on Thursday. “I'm out and safe,” he wrote. “Thank you all for your support.”