U.S. News

03.05.13

Forget Rodman. Guys like Jeff Bewkes Are the Real Winners of Vice’s North Korea Stunt

Was Vice Media’s basketball stunt in North Korea unethical? Maybe. Either way, a lot of rich people stand to get richer off it. Caitlin Dickson follows the money trail.

Critics of the recent visit by former NBA star Dennis Rodman to North Korea say the bizarre trip propped up a despotic leader with one of the worst human rights records on the planet. Proponents say it was a piece of edgy journalism that gave the West a window into the rarely seen world of Kim Jong-un.

130304-Dickson-HBO-Vice-embed
Members of the Harlem Globetrotters basketball team prepare to check in with former NBA star Dennis Rodman at Beijing Capital International Airport, February 26, 2013. (Andy Wong/AP)

Whatever your take, most agree there was at least one clear winner: Vice Media, the Brooklyn-based media conglomerate with a “daredevil streak” that arranged and filmed the trip, and got a torrent of worldwide press for its upcoming HBO show.

Which means another winner could be HBO, which provided “a little bit” of extra financing for the trip, on top of what it already has paid for the show, according to Michael Lombardo, HBO’s president of production. Lombardo added that Vice is an “independent producer,” and that the trip “was always intended to be ‘you know what, let’s get our camera into an isolated country that we hear about, we read about, and yet is hard for us even to picture.’”

But the beneficiaries of Kim Jong-un’s goodwill and apparently vast hospitality don’t stop there. (Members of the Vice crew described getting drunk and eating “an epic feast” with Kim at the Supreme Leader’s home.) A win for Vice is also a win for the company’s investors, which include some notable names from the 1 percent. Tom Freston, for example, is a stakeholder. Freston, the co-founder of MTV and former CEO of Viacom, helped Oprah Winfrey launch the OWN Network and is a big Democratic donor.

Another stakeholder is the Raine Group, an investment bank co-founded by Ari Emanuel, brother of Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, and Joseph Ravitch, a former partner at Goldman Sachs and a board member of … Vice Media. Google CEO Eric Schmidt and former Facebook President Sean Parker have both invested in a Raine private-equity fund, according to press reports.

Another stakeholder is the Raine Group, an investment bank co-founded by Ari Emanuel, brother of Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

Of course, as HBO’s owner, Time Warner also has something to gain should Vice, which premieres April 5, prove to be a commercial success. That would include Time Warner CEO Jeff Bewkes, as well as the company’s shareholders. Bill Maher is an executive producer of Vice and CNN’s Fareed Zakaria is a consultant.

For its part, Vice says it’s “capturing one of the more historic and bizarre events in recent memory; a story that would be a coup for any news organization.” In an email to The Daily Beast, spokesman Alex Detrick continued: “America and North Korea are diametrically opposed in every way, with the exception of basketball, which we used to gain access and give millions of people a rare look into the hermit kingdom. The New York Symphony, former governor Bill Richardson, and Google have all visited North Korea, but only VICE documented history.”

And Vice won’t be the only one profiting off that history.