Killing Cancer

Vice Graphic

As you might expect from a blog, we’re big fans of HBO’s VICE, the cable giant’s slickly-produced answer to staid network news magazine shows like Sixty Minutes. Over it’s first two seasons, the show has established a small cult following with fast-paced, drop-you-down-in-the-center-of-the-action investigations of stories that are usually owned by the major television news organizations.

The recipe works and works surprisingly well as entertainment. It’s also pretty damn good journalism, much to the dismay of traditionalists.

VICE generally avoids slower-moving health care stories in favor of edgy, faster-paced, occasionally subversive pieces that send correspondents to far flung locations around the globe and put their lives in jeopardy as they go places the other guys generally won’t go.

The show’s first two seasons have seen correspondents sent to Afghanistan to report on teen suicide bombers, to Bangladesh to report on the illegal organ trade and to North Korea to a report on a basketball game attended by Dennis Rodman and North Korean Dictator Kim Jong Un.

Killing Cancer, Season Three’s season opening special report, an optimistic hour long episode that airs before the season premiere, is an encouraging exception to the no-healthcare rule that demonstrates that the show may be capable of much more than critics give it credit for.

Hosted by series creator Shane Smith, the special highlights the highly promising and potentially groundbreaking work being done by researchers at places like the Mayo Clinic and MD Anderson Cancer Center and around the world to fight cancer using deadly viruses like Measles, Smallpox and HIV to attack tumors using the body’s natural immune response.

Some have argued that immersion journalism, the school to which both VICE and the Montreal news magazine of the same name where Smith worked for years before taking his project to HBO, hurts the journalist’s objectivity by putting him or her too close to the story, and thus, by extension does the same thing for the audience.

In the case of Vice Special Report: Killing Cancer: the critics will likely argue Smith’s take on the war on cancer is too far optimistic and simplistic. (This being the number one charge critics like to throw at those who dare to cover subjects they believe themselves to be experts in. “Simplistic” is their favorite insult. They love to throw it as they they gnash their teeth and rage against the injustices of the world, which generally include things like not having their own HBO shows, New York Times bestsellers or screenplays on the Black List.)

There are complex systemic reasons that a cure for cancer has not been found, they will say.

Not enough funding for the National Institutes of Health. Bad priorities in Washington. Pharma company dilly dallying. Too many competing cancer organizations and interest groups. Too many different scientists working in too many different labs.

And there there are bigger issues to confront. If we do somehow find a cure for cancer, who gets it? You? Me? The founders of Google? How does society pay for it?  Will my insurance pay for it?  Will anybody know when you call my insurance company?

How do we deal with the fact that some people don’t get our new miracle cure? Do we have a lottery?

It turns out that curing cancer is a surprisingly controversial subject.

The problem is that there’s a lot to like about the work that’s being done at Mayo and MD Anderson and other research institutions around the world. The idea that it may be possible to turn the body’s immune system against its enemies and to our advantage is at the core of a growing school of thought in medicine. We already know the idea works. This is the theory behind vaccination. A rapidly growing body of research supports the argument.

It may, in fact, be time to start getting excited.

The show’s first person P.O.V. reports have been attacked by critics for lacking nuance and context.

Pretty much every episode of VICE can be summed as some variation, the critics would argue:  a cool dude with a beard and sunglasses runs around a third world country sticking a microphone in people’s faces while Kalashnikovs fire overheard. There is lots of mud. Slum dwellings. Local color.  Call it extreme travel journalism. National Geographic meets HBO’s Entertainment Division.

Entertaining? Yes. Extremely. Journalism? No.

Yet, VICE’s opening round of healthcare coverage is a surprisingly thoughtful introduction to a complicated topic that a lot of people screw up. Smith comes across as well-informed, smart and willing to ask the right questions. There’s something very likeable and low key about the way Smith works with the patients going through clinical trials of these promising new treatments and the way he interacts with the physicians he talks to. Away from the front lines and the helicopter shots and the Taliban, Smith comes across as a regular guy, an anti-establishment Joe who just happens to have a camera crew tagging along — a nice change of pace from breathless t.v. docs and bloviating network correspondents.

Some critics might question the producer’s decision to start with cancer. After all, there are a lot of meaty healthcare stories available for them to pick from. Health reform, insane health care bills, pharma and biotech, patient safety, medical errors, the anti-vaxxer movement, alternative medicines, the doctor crisis, medical marijuana,  quackery, Ebola, HPV, the smouldering HIV/AIDs story- the list is a ridiculously long one  The show’s bosses at HBO will doubtless be paying close attention to how this episode performs.  If it does well, it’s a safe bet we’ll see more like it.

If Vice Special Report: Killing Cancer is any indication of what Smith and his team can do with healthcare stories, sign us up.

John Irvine is the editor of The Health Care Blog.


3 replies »

  1. “SImplistic” is, in fact, an accurate description of most TV journalism, including “60 Minutes.” Saying so doesn’t make you jealous, it makes you someone who knows something about the topic. Different amounts of detail for different media.

  2. Watched that ep, and was dancing with glee in my living room as I did. I hope that VICE does more health/science special reports, since they’re damn good journalists.