Smith, 47, has spent the past decade joining forces with Fortune 500 companies and charming the likes of 21st Century Fox’s Rupert Murdoch and Disney’s Bob Iger out of hundreds of millions of dollars, then gobbling up the tuna with hegemonic zeal—a pursuit he calls “the bloodbath of media consolidation.”
“We’re looking at acquisitions. We’re looking at expanding exponentially,” he told The Daily Beast from Los Angeles. “One of the reasons we did get backing from partners like Disney is that I believe that over the next 12 to 24 months, unless you have strategic partners, and a war chest and deep pockets, then you’re not going to be able to move dynamically, and also pick up market share, because there’s going to be a lot of market share left on the table, and we want to be there to pick it up… We are participating in that consolidation daily.”
With his mastery of business-speak to describe shark-like aspirations, Smith has come a long way since his days tending bar, at the illegal age of 14, and “slinging coke,” as he once put it, to make extra money—by which he presumably didn’t mean selling contraband Coca Cola.
Now a portly, bearded, married father of two (albeit partially covered in tattoos), he presides over a 2,600-employee global journalism, publishing, video and entertainment conglomerate chasing after the lucrative holy grail of demographics, i.e. millennials; Smith reportedly boasts more than a billion dollars in personal assets, while he and his filmmaker-wife Tamyka recently purchased and renovated a baronial $23 million estate in Santa Monica.
It’s all part of the metamorphosis from “libertine upstart to respectable mogul,” as Smith, a meticulous caretaker of his own cheeky image, told the WSJ magazine last September. “I get a lot of shit because I used to like cocaine and supermodels and fuckin’, and now we’re gonna try to do news.”
Smith has been a flamboyant media darling for a long time, but he first gained widespread public attention in 2013 when he brought peculiar basketball has-been Dennis Rodman to North Korea, where they enjoyed a friendly, three-hour dinner with homicidal despot Kim Jong-un.
As he chatted over the phone this week, Smith was preparing to hop on a plane for yet another exotically threatening locale in the service of Vice’s weekly Emmy-winning HBO series, which featured the Rodman adventure four years ago and launches its fifth season today (Friday). He refused to say where he was headed.
“I’m not allowed to talk about that, but it’s a big get if we get it,” he teased. “I’ve learned the hard way that if you let something out of the bag and it doesn’t happen, you get dinged for it. I’ll let you know when we get back.”
Smith argued that despite the corporatization of Vice Media—what with deals with the world’s biggest media empires, a global news network, and offices in more than 30 countries, a far cry from its start 23 years ago as an alternative culture mag in Montreal—it still retains its renegade hipster spirit.
“Our first sensibility was DIY”—for do-it-yourself—“so if we wanted to do a punk show in Ottawa, we had to form the band, book the hall, make the posters, etcetera, etcetera, and I think that is our underlying principle still,” Smith said. “Look, I have the greatest job in the world, because it’s a job that I made. I still spend 50 percent of my time doing content, and 50 percent of my time doing business, because it’s important that the company understands that we’re a content-first company, and I want to lead by example.”
Smith, an Ottawa native with dual U.S.-Canadian citizenship, had a surprisingly measured response—one might even say a Canadian response—to President Trump’s constant efforts to delegitimize journalism as “fake news” and declare journalists in general “the enemy of the American people.”
“As you and I both know, the free media is the definition or the basis of democracy,” he said. “I think that the whole ‘fake news’ thing shows a bigger distrust that’s happened between the Democrats and Republicans and the right and left in the country: ‘I’m gonna believe my news feed. I hear and see what my friends hear and see, and I’m not gonna believe your stuff,’ and never the twain shall meet.”
Careful not to condemn Trump’s assaults on journalism specifically, he added: “I worry that we’ve really broken a bipartisan handshake-across-the aisle to the point where no one will work with each other, and that bled over into media and politics in general. I think that’s very dangerous…
“If it’s just wingnuts making stuff up online in your Facebook feed, then that’s very dangerous, because there has to be a sort of common basis of sanity and fact so that we can have a debate on viewpoints on both sides. However, if there’s no commonality of facts, then it’s just people pulling out made-up things willy-nilly, and then we’re all going to Crazy Town, and it’s a big problem.”
Perhaps Smith—who last fall also launched a millennial-friendly nightly news program on HBO—is showing unusual restraint because he’s keen on beguiling his way into an all-access pass into Donald Trump’s White House, much as he ended up enchanting Barack Obama.
At one point in 2015, he persuaded the Leader of the Free World to make history’s first visit of an American president to a federal lockup, where Obama sat for Vice’s cameras with a group of inmates to discuss the broken criminal justice system and the dysfunctional culture of incarceration.
“I think it takes a while for people to look at the total media spectrum and say ‘Vice will give us a fair shake. We may not like what they say, but at least they’re going to give our side of the story and they’re not going to go off on a tirade,’” Smith said, noting that the Obama White didn’t start cooperating until well into the second term.
“Unlike many news outlets out there, we’re without an agenda and not partisan in any way,” he claimed, continuing his sales pitch. “And a lot of people want to get their stories out, and we have a big millennial demographic and eyeballs. If you ever want to get anything out there to the youth who are going to swing the next 20 years of elections, you’re going to have to come to Vice eventually.”
Smith added that “a lot of millennials feel very passionate about environmental issues, LGBTQ issues…and we made a sort of pact in the newsroom when Trump was elected that look, we’re gonna go after policy.”
He’s especially interested in securing the participation in Vice reports of Scott Pruitt, Trump’s administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency he seemingly seeks to dismantle; of former Exxon-Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson, Trump’s secretary of state; and of former Texas governor Rick Perry, Trump’s secretary of the energy department he once sought to eliminate.
When asked if Vice could spice up the proposed Rick Perry interview with a clip of the energy secretary doing the tango on Dancing With the Stars, Smith drew a blank.
“I didn’t know he did Dancing With the Stars,” he conceded. “I’m too much of a policy wonk, I guess. I’ve gotta get out there and do more cultural research.”