Vice’s Action Bronson Problem

NEW YORK, NY - FEBRUARY 25: (EXCLUSIVE COVERAGE) Rapper Action Bronson attends the VICELAND launch party at The Angel Orensanz Foundation on February 25, 2016 in New York City. (Photo by Nicholas Hunt/Getty Images)

Action Bronson’s nightly Viceland show, The Untitled Action Bronson Show, follows a loose and freewheeling format. The rapper holds court in a large kitchen overlooking a sunny patio attached to Vice’s office in Brooklyn as guests mill about enjoying the vibe and participating in segments that seem hastily planned out if not outright improvised. The show is meant to mimic the sort of party you might only end up at once in your life, with world class food and drinks you would otherwise never eat, interesting people you would otherwise never meet, and antics befitting a once-in-a-lifetime story.

An episode from the show’s first month in October is emblematic. It stars Michael White, founder of the celebrated Manhattan restaurant Marea, who cooks white truffle pasta for Bronson and his frequent musical and television collaborator Mayhem Lauren. Later, they are joined by a man named Throwdini, allegedly the world’s fastest knife thrower, who hurls big blades of metal at a straw protruding from a volunteer’s mouth. Then arrives fellow New York rapper Roc Marciano, who snacks on more pasta, as well as bagels, while sipping from a large chalice of wine. Throughout, the show is shot in a manner that encourages the viewer to feel a certain inclusivity, with crew members routinely popping out from behind the camera and frequent overhead shots that convey a feeling that nobody on set is really working. The episode ends with an appearance by the cast of STOMP, who use the kitchen to create a symphonic clattering of pots, pans, tables, and sinks as Bronson and friends cheer along.

It looks like a great time and probably was—so long as you were invited to the shoot and were not one of the many Vice editorial staffers trying to work on the other side of the wall. (Viceland and Vice HBO staffers generally work in an underground floor beneath the ruckus.) Bronson’s show shoots twice per week at Vice headquarters, and the rapper’s partying and accompanying antics often bleed outside of the studio and into the newsroom. Over a dozen sources who spoke with Spin characterized Bronson using words like “distracting,” “disruptive,” “obnoxious,” and “rude.” His presence at Vice has become an increasing problem over the last several months, one that came to a head last week after employees came to believe that Bronson had uttered a racial slur while in the office—a rumor that was disproven, but only after a full day of meetings involving executives from Vice, Viceland, and Vice HBO.

In a statement, a Vice spokesperson said, “We are always trying to strike the right balance between our HQ and an active production space with many shows shooting there daily.” A request for comment from Bronson sent to his manager was routed through Vice, which said he was unable to be reached.

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Viceland, which flicked on air in February 2016, has been through its share of ups and downs. Ratings in its first year were uninspiring, and on Wednesday the Wall Street Journal reported that the network holds a large share of the blame for Vice missing its 2017 revenue target by over $100 million. In Canada, where Vice was founded nearly three decades ago, Viceland is in search of a new partner to keep it on the air after behemoth media corporation Rogers Communications recently ended a $100 million joint venture with the company. In November, Viceland host Abdullah Saeed announced he would no longer “produce content” with Vice, citing “recent reports” of harassment within the company that first surfaced on the Daily Beast. On the other hand, the network garnered an Emmy nomination in its inaugural year for Ellen Page’s queer-focused travel show Gaycation. It has also helped solidify the mini-media empire of Desus & Mero, who host an eponymous late night show that is the network’s most popular and critically acclaimed programming, drawing noteworthy guests from the worlds of music, acting, sports, and comedy. The duo has continued to strike out on its own, voicing characters in Ezra Koenig’s Netflix anime series, appearing semi-regularly on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, and plotting a cross-country comedy tour.

Viceland has also found success in Action Bronson, the portly and cartoonish rapper who has become one of the network’s flagship personalities. His show Fuck, That’s Delicious, a lighthearted recreation of Anthony Bourdain’s star-making food and culture series in which Bronson smokes weed and eats lavishly, has spawned a deep relationship between the rapper and the company. In 2016, the network aired a one-off series in which Bronson and various celebrities sat around getting high and watching the History Channel’s Ancient Aliens. In September of last year, Bronson released a Fuck, That’s Delicious-branded cookbook that landed on the New York Times’ best sellers list, and in October Viceland debuted The Untitled Action Bronson Show. If the health of Viceland relies on it creating star personalities, then it has invested part of its future in Bronson, who on camera is funny and affable, able to charm someone like Rachael Ray with ease.

But Bronson has a different reputation to employees inside Vice’s office, who see him as boorish, disrespectful, and a constant nuisance who can make the daily task of completing work needlessly difficult, if not temporarily impossible. According to multiple employees, Bronson’s antics in the company’s Brooklyn office in recent months have become so bothersome that editorial staffers at Vice’s web properties—which are separate from Viceland and its television operation—began discussing ways in which to raise the issue with managers at the company.

The issue came a head last week, though, when, according to multiple sources, a rumor began circulating among employees on both coasts that Bronson had used the n-word while in the New York office. Because Bronson’s presence there is tied to his nightly show, he was wearing a mic and on camera when the alleged incident occurred. A complaint was filed to HR, and on February 1 Vice executives reviewed the tape and determined that Bronson did not use the slur, and instead had been misheard. In order to satiate employees who were skeptical of the ruling, Ciel Hunter, Vice’s head of content, allowed individual staffers to come into a conference room and hear the audio for themselves. According to one person who listened to the recording, Bronson had used the name “Nick” in a sentence, and not the offending word. All sources who spoke to Spin for this story believe the matter to have been adequately resolved.

Nonetheless, Bronson’s presence in the office as well as his general affiliation with Vice has been a festering problem for months, if not years. According to at least ten staffers at the New York office, Bronson has used the creative latitude awarded to him for his nightly show to treat the office, including its main lobby, as what one described as a playhouse. Another staffer described the office as being “held hostage by his nightly show.” Employees recounted incidents in which Bronson brought goats into the office, as well as a marching band. Sometimes the nuisances were more routine, such as Bronson and his crew sprinting through the office with fitness trainer Troy Brooks. According to multiple sources, Bronson recently rode a bike into an editorial meeting being held by Vice’s music website Noisey with a camera crew in tow, interrupting it for several minutes by yelling at gathered staffers, in the role of a mock manager, about raising their productivity.

“He rode into the room on a bicycle and sat at the meeting table, yelling at employees,” said one source who witnessed the incident. “At one point he was banging on the table and it was loud enough that most of the floor heard it.”

Another sticking point raised by nearly every source was Bronson’s use of weed in the office. The rapper is an avowed pothead who smokes constantly on camera. This has extended, too, to the Vice office and its main lobby. Vice has a no-drug policy at its office, though as it pertains to Bronson it is not enforced. Bronson is said to leave parts of the office, including large, shared areas, reeking of weed smoke daily—a mild and even comical annoyance, especially at a largely millennial workplace like Vice, but one that staffers believe erodes the professionalism the company should be growing into. These sources also referred to other talent who smoke weed in the office, but said their use is limited to private areas and is respectful of the staff’s working environment.

“He smokes weed all the time, the whole building smells like weed when he’s there,” said one source. Said another: “He smokes pot all day long in the lobby of the fucking office. The whole lobby stinks.”

At least one incident was more serious. According to multiple sources, during filming on January 22, an ambulance was required to remove an employee, who was visiting from a different Vice office, from the roof deck where Bronson shoots. “They brought this guy into the lobby off the roof deck on a stretcher,” one source who witnessed the incident tells Spin. “He was strapped down.” Rumors have abounded regarding what exactly necessitated the call to authorities, but senior sources at Vice say that the employee was treated for dehydration and is fine. 

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Sources who spoke with Spin say that discussions about Bronson among employees is not limited to just his disrupting of the workday. They specifically took issue with his lyrics—which, like plenty of rap, can veer into sexism—and in particular his history of what several sources termed Bronson’s “transphobia.” That relates to an incident from 2012, when Bronson posted disturbing video of an apparently incapacitated trans woman being harassed by his friend and collaborator Big Body Bes, who appears frequently on Fuck, That’s Delicious as part of Bronson’s travelling crew. Bronson eventually apologized for the incident, but not before posting, “I love Gay People. Trannies not so much.”

This controversy has not been forgotten by some of the Vice staffers we spoke to, who say that they and others view Bronson as someone with whom the company should not be so closely associated. According to multiple sources, staff at Vice’s Los Angeles office successfully fought the company in 2015 over large photos of Bronson that were displayed on the walls there. The staffers who got them taken down believed that displaying them would be disrespectful to the office’s trans employees.

Bronson’s reign of terror at Vice’s New York headquarters comes at a particularly fraught time for a company that has grown into one of the great hopes for journalism’s future. Since the publication of the Daily Beast story about a history of harassment at Vice and a subsequent story in the New York Times that included details of settlements stemming from claims of harassment and defamation, editorial staffers have been putting pressure on Vice to reckon with its culture, which to some was exciting and revolutionary, but to others allowed tyrannical men to thrive.

Vice was founded in 1994 by current CEO Shane Smith, Suroosh Alvi (who also remains atop the company), and Gavin McInnes, who’s been distanced from Vice since shifting into becoming a far right wing provocateur. For most of its history, Vice cultivated an outlaw reputation, writing very frankly about topics like sex and drug use. Vice would go to places others wouldn’t in order to produce and obtain stories. That very reputation, when represented in early videos like “World’s Scariest Drug” and “Cannibal Warlords of Liberia,” helped turn Vice into a multimedia empire, one attractive to much larger companies hoping to connect with a younger audience while still keeping their own hands clean.

Vice’s founders were proud of that reputation, but it was also intrinsically tied to a sexism that stemmed from the very top. In the book The Vice Guide to Sex and Drugs and Rock and Roll, first published in 2003, Smith, Alvi, and McInnes chat at length about the early days of Vice, including stories of having sex with ad executives described by McInnes as “old, balding dogs with horrible tits” as well as girls featured in the magazine, one of which McInnes writes was “this slut from Malta” who “Shane and I took to fucking regularly in a porn booth and at the office.” As described in both the Daily Beast and Times stories, the culture that stemmed from this origin story never escaped Vice even as it became a billion-dollar company.

But Vice now employs hundreds of people in its New York office, many of whom have little to no memory of, or attachment to, the outlaw era that made the company famous. This has naturally caused a tension at the company, with editorial staffers applying internal pressure to executives, many of whom are holdovers from the old days, to clean Vice up and make it a hospitable workplace, especially for women. (The company holds monthly meetings with union representatives that address, in part, workplace issues.) In the view of some employees, Vice has not always reacted appropriately. In November, Vice held a “state of the union” address that had been scheduled for a day that happened to fall after the publication of the Daily Beast story. The meeting began with a 45-minute video, hosted by Smith and Alvi and filmed months prior, that did not address the reports of sexual harassment. According to CNN, Vice staffers left the office “in disgust,” with one employee telling the network, “Even for Vice, the whole thing was astoundingly tone-deaf.”

The staffers who spoke with Spin characterized Action Bronson as a general manifestation of what they are seeking to eradicate from the company. That he has become a constant presence in the New York office—physically intimidating, loud, and rude—has only made the matter more acute. For Vice, this may become a defining issue: how to hire the same young people that have powered it to the top, but who are now entering the world, and the workplace, with different ideals than their predecessors. Those young people are surely attracted to what Vice staffers consistently (and often sarcastically) refer to as their “non-traditional workplace”—an office that is wacky and a little wild—but they also believe there need to be boundaries where those before them might have not.

If anything, Vice may be able to deal with the Action Bronson problem in a roundabout way. According to one senior Vice source, The Untitled Action Bronson Show is likely to be cancelled due to poor ratings and a sloppy, disorganized format. According to Vice, no decision on a second season has been made. But, January 29, when he stormed into Noisey’s editorial meeting and later sparked the racial slur controversy that wasn’t, was the first season’s last day of filming. Whether the show returns to television, and brings Bronson back into the office along with it, is up in the air.

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