Media empires like Vice and celebrities like Anthony Bourdain are reporting from the world’s most misunderstood countries. Is their brand of travel journalism just repackaged sensationalism?
Perched on the roof of a boat drifting slowly along a remote stretch of the Congo River, Anthony Bourdain—celebrity chef, travel-show host, irascible personality—is truly on top of the world. It’s the season finale of his latest vehicle, Parts Unknown on CNN, and after sojourns to post-revolutionary Libya and the guerilla-riddled Colombian Amazon, our host is introducing a destination—the Democratic Republic of the Congo—deemed too extreme even by his most dedicated cameramen. Their hesitance hardly slowed down Bourdain, whose decision to keep shooting through an air raid on Beirut earned his previous series, No Reservations, an Emmy—and elevated his public image from “the anti-Rachel Ray” to “Anderson Cooper, with swearing.” Exposing a country visited by relatively few outsiders and scarred by an inscrutably complex, ceaselessly bloody conflict—the planet’s deadliest since the Second World War—the show’s finale alone allowed Parts Unknown to live up to its name.
And yet it’s a name no less easy to live down, conjuring as it does antiquated echoes of Eurocentricity and empire. Bourdain’s desire to case the Congo was inspired by Joseph Conrad’s colonial-era novel Heart of Darkness, in which a central character, Kurtz, is driven mad by his immersion in an African interior it portrays as mysterious and malignant. Parts Unknown visits Goma, the DRC’s most battle-scarred city, but only as a short subplot to Bourdain’s extended homage to Heart—a waterborne journey, like the book’s, complete with a Kurtzian breakdown when our host attempts to cook by flickering generator light. And it’s with Conrad’s plot in mind that Bourdain begins the episode with a phrase that comes off as an unfortunate, flippant introduction to a country struggling with underdevelopment and atrocity: “Welcome to the jungle.”
The modern media landscape can feel like a festering swamp of uninspired ideas, and it may seem unfair to pick apart any television program as comparatively intelligent and original as Bourdain’s. But it’s precisely the potential of his show—and of other media offerings pushing similar combinations of food, fearlessness, or foreignness—that compels critical examination. This new genre’s influence can be felt in stories produced by a number of outlets, from the multimedia conglomerate Vice to gonzo mag NSFWCORP to Roads & Kingdoms, a web publication that sometimes makes even Bourdain seem like a timid package tourist. Call the phenomenon “advenjournalism”—one of the least-interrogated new typologies emerging as an alternative to the ever-shrinking world of establishment print and broadcast news.
Advenjournalism may appear in diverse forms, but the category is united by a number of common characteristics. The genre often focuses on isolated, rarely visited, conflict-ridden, or closed societies. Its programming tends to blend travel narrative with professional reporting—fusing basic background and recent news with the challenging process of getting the story itself. The genre’s public face is overwhelmingly male. Pushing voices from a narrow range of perspectives and importing travel writing’s preoccupation with scene-setting anecdotes, it often plays off what’s most strange or different about the outside world to Western audiences, coming off as heavy on exoticism as it does on current events or culture.
Vice stories like “Paintballing with Hezbollah” are archetypal advenjournalism, providing less new information than a sense—by emphasizing, in this example, the strangeness of Lebanese militants participating in an everyday game—of cultural distance between subject and reader. In Vice’s case this tendency can reach a darkly comic level of cultural condescension; among the outlet’s worst offenses are The Vice Guide to Liberia, which advertises “cross-dressing cannibals,” and War Gin, a documentary that revels in Uganda’s status as the “drunkest country in the world.”
But there are other, subtler ways the tension between sober reporting and sensationalist Othering is evident across the genre. Roads & Kingdoms’ Daniel Howden was among the first correspondents to arrive in Timbuktu after a French offensive drove out Islamist occupiers this spring. His report provided fascinating vignettes of the Malian city’s transition back to secular rule, but was so absorbed with Timbuktu’s more quotidian quirks that it was difficult to discern how much the city had actually changed. NSFWCORP’s Gary Brecher possesses an almost encyclopedic knowledge of global conflict, but publishing him extensively often leaves the magazine viewing vast portions of the world through the lens of violent military engagement alone— traumatic events trivialized by Brecher’s pseudonym, “The War Nerd.”
Of course, none of these outlets push advenjournalism alone. Even Vice, by far the most controversial, mixes shock-value-added misrepresentation with fare nearly as dry as a think tank’s—and, sometimes, truly valuable stories that journalists risk their lives to get. Nor are advenjournalism’s tendencies entirely new. Given that these outlets are still relatively marginal, none of their drawbacks may seem especially significant. But, as traditional media pull back from international reporting, advenjournalist outlets are, increasingly, left filling the gap.
“This is CNN”—the simple slogan’s bass-toned gravity conveys the authority once attached to the first-ever 24-hour news channel. James Earl Jones’ deep-throated assurance booms from television sets less often now, echoing the network’s diminishing weight. It’s become a cliché that the age of the media monolith is over, but the plunge continues unabated: austerity-battered Britain has accepted massive cuts to the BBC; Canada’s CBC endures a dangling fiscal Sword of Damocles; Greece’s public broadcaster has completely shut down.
Whatever their inevitable biases, such networks have historically proven the informational antidote to the ratings-driven drivel of less comprehensive, more sensationalist counter-parts. Their increasing absence has unleashed a highly polarized culture of blogs, tailored Twitter feeds and networks fit for any outlook—from Fox News and Sun TV to MSNBC. It’s an environment in which even the mouthpieces of authoritarian regimes—from subtly pro-Kremlin Russia Today to CCTV America, beamed from Beijing—can capture audiences abroad, using the hard-to-discredit arguments that they’re no less biased than Fox, and that they cover their regions more comprehensively than local broadcasters. News sources that haven’t opted for ideology have pursued audiences through infotainment: CNN continues diminishing reportorial resources in favor of more reality and talk shows, and satire outlets like The Daily Show and The Onion continue to take off, both by poking fun at partisan news and by serving as a more digestible means of accessing information.
The appeal of both trends has fueled advenjournalism’s rise. The genre captures audiences not only by covering stories missed by the rest of the media, but by adding healthy doses of attitude and entertainment, capturing both the trenchancy of traditional reportage and the thrill of the new journalism. That’s why CNN turned to Bourdain to prop up its brand, even as he occupies airtime that might better serve viewers with programming explaining Congo’s conflict with the detail and clarity the network once brought to the Gulf War. It’s why HBO partnered with Vice, why Slate partnered with Roads & Kingdoms and why other advenjournalist outlets are confident they may displace traditional media organizations wholesale. NSFWCORP touts itself as a new model for profitable journalism; its success is driven by subscriber interest. Vice once merely offered content to CNN; now, it aims to unseat it. No less a media mogul than Rupert Murdoch is convinced that could actually happen.
There’s a lot at stake, then, in how this brand of travel journalism resolves its central tensions: between responsibility and ratings, between filling in the blank spaces on broadcasters’ maps and serving up the most compelling stories possible. Bourdain’s Congo episode demonstrates just how delicate this balancing act can be. In 1975, the Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe gave a lecture excoriating Heart of Darkness for the dehumanizing prose it uses to describe Africa. While Conrad’s novel is often interpreted as an anti-imperialist work, Achebe demonstrated that its descriptions abound with the same attitudes that undergirded colonialism. Bourdain makes passing reference to the depredations of Belgian misrule in Congo, but lingers much longer on the ruins of colonial industries and institutions, as if nostalgic for the Belgians—reproducing Conrad’s own unselfconsciously dim faith in Africans.
As newspapers disappear and legacy broadcasters fade to static, news media have a tremendous opportunity to shift their focus from provincial concerns to humanity’s shared challenges. When, instead, the advenjournalists’ efforts—well-meaning attempts to get us better acquainted with far-flung corners of the earth—have, like Conrad’s work, the unintended effect of making us think less of them, one wonders if we’re better off left in the dark.
Christopher Szabla lives in New York, where he writes for UrbanPhoto. Reprinted from Maisonneuve, a Montreal-based quarterly magazine that covers arts, politics, ideas, and anything else eclectic and curious.