Working Through the Stubble
How Vice's Thomas Morton went from quick-witted intern to Emmy-winning journalistic centerpiece
Sometime in 2007, a few years after he started working at Vice, Thomas Morton thought it would be a good idea to grow out his facial hair. “The beard,” he puffed, making air quotes with his fingers. He crossed his legs, anchored his elbow into the back cushion of the couch, and nonchalantly perched his chin on his palm. His narrow frame, all pale skin and thin limbs, pinched in on itself as he shifted his weight, shaking his head, reaching to adjust his glasses with his free hand. He was eating Haribo candy and continued to chew. “I think a girlfriend at the time wanted it. It was probably some father-issue thing,” he added in his flat-lined cadence, full of snark and uncompromising honesty. “It looked horrible.” The patchy scruff followed Morton to the Pacific Ocean where he was sent to host a video segment on the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in the North Pacific Gyre. The video, produced for the newly-formed Vice online offshoot VBS.tv, stands as one of the most viewed and most shared documentaries Thomas has appeared in, with over one million views. It was almost more popular than the first episode of the first season of VICE on HBO, which launched last year to critical acclaim, including a 2014 Emmy and, in May of this year, a renewal through a fourth season.
In the seven years since the inception of video content on Vice’s website, Morton has grown from the quick-witted, somewhat awkward and often foul-mouthed amateur host into VICE’s most-aired correspondent, netting 11 segments in the first two seasons of the television show (the second of which aired this summer) and traveling to nearly two dozen countries for the now-famed news outlet known for its off-beat topics, immersive perspective and nonchalant delivery. It’s a branding foundation that Morton, barely out of college, helped cultivate. And it is now viewed as the chief characteristic of the media powerhouse. “Initially, because Thomas was the most socially awkward person we have ever seen, we said, ‘We should make Thomas the star of these documentaries because it seems so absurd,’” said Vice Founder Shane Smith. “We sort of realized that a host doesn’t have to be Superman. It can be the quintessential, 98-pound weakling, know-it-all nerd,” he continued. “People resonate with him.”
A formative face in the evolution of what has become the cornerstone of the Vice brand, Morton grew up in the suburbs of Atlanta. As a teenager, he opted for Archers of Loaf over Kenny Chesney, classic novels and Wayfarers over bass fishing and oversized belt buckles. Interests, to him, that signified the larger ambition of leaving Georgia for New York City. “I wasn’t the son of some sharecropper,” Morton said, “and I was lucky enough to take what I had been given and turn it into a ticket out of town.” A real ace on the trivia team (officially dubbed “academic bowl”), Morton enrolled in the English Literature program at NYU with a scholarship, making the reputable university affordable enough for his means. He moved into his dorm two days before 9/11 as a fresh-faced lit-rat with dreams of fast-paced city life. “I was like, ‘This city rules! This is fun!’” he mimicked of his first 48 hours in Manhattan, adding that, despite the forthcoming tragedy, his love for New York endured and he continued his education.
Keeping his nose in books and only dabbling in a few journalism classes, Morton was turned off by most of the news kids. To him, they were just a bunch of drab losers who took themselves too seriously. “I fucking hated those kids in the journalism school,” he said. “It wasn’t like nobody was super fun to hang out with, but nobody had a sense of humor at all.” He huffed and continued: “And the broadcast kids were worse than anything. They had that [Anderson Cooper] mentality but were really dumb.” Now, ten years later, it seems to have been an asset for Morton to come into the world of journalism with disdain and an alternative perspective. And, as it turned out, this same sort of outsider mentality is exactly what Vice was founded upon when Shane Smith and company started it in the mid-1990s.
Morton’s first day interning at Vice, in 2004, was the day the “Party Issue” came out. Morton, who arrived at 9:30 a.m. to find boxes of the issue dumped off on the sidewalk by the shipping company, reveled in the outlandishness and skewed humor that underscored its view on contemporary youth culture. “There was a picture of a tranny jerking off a guy while someone else was doing coke off his balls or something,” he remembered. “It was a really good article.” He felt at home.
At the onset, Morton stepped onto the traditional path of working at an independently owned publication: various administrative duties, help with distribution, light online updating (at this time, the website was updated monthly with content from the print magazine) and some published writing for a column called “The Gross Jar.” His first few pieces were done under various pseudonyms (Leroy Gumption, among others), but his first print article under his real name was for the pivotal “Immersionism Issue,” where he went to live with a Hispanic family in Washington Heights for a week. A turning point for Morton (who got a heavy-handed, metaphorical pat on the back from his superiors for the quality of the piece), the issue, too, seemed to flick a switch in the brand as a whole, sparking the dedication to the immersionist style of reporting that we know Vice for today.
Although the writing in the magazine before that issue was certainly sardonic, outlandish and unique, its commentary-driven bent didn’t allow for much tried-and-true reporting to sit center stage. “The ‘Immersionism Issue’ really solidified that whole angle and approach that would go on to become the video style, or anti-style, and was sort of our guiding principle,” Morton explained. And from there, that modern gonzoism became its own walking, talking entity. It became the foundation that Vice, now, with its multitude of digital channels and prime-time documentary show, stands proudly on—shoulders square, staring eye to eye with the mainstream, a smirk on its proverbial face.
But even before the solidification of that viewpoint, the meticulous care that journalists take to do their job right was still evident, even if the stories written were more random and unorthodox. “Even when it was writing about breakfast cereal mascots or eating pussy, there was always a level of rigor that we tried to apply to it,” Morton explained. “We took it seriously. We didn’t want to half-ass anything we were doing.”
At this point, Morton found his groove. He was now a paid editor at a publication in New York that spoke in parallel to his own ambitions as a writer, was well-respected by his colleagues, and had the freedom, more or less, to write about whatever he wanted to. But as Vice started doing video content, first for their Vice Guide to Travel DVD in 2006, which transitioned into VBS.tv, eyes started peering around the office, looking for people to develop and host documentaries. And when Morton pitched a story about chasing moonshiners in South Carolina with The Black Lips, it all started. His first crack at being in front of the camera. “There was a thinly metaphorical gun [to my head]: ‘Great. You go do it. Take a cameraman. You have a weekend,’” Morton explained, which was produced with amateur know-how and a shoe-string budget. “I had no plan to ever be in front of the camera and if you look at me back then, I don’t carry myself like someone who expects to be seen,” Morton said of his era with “the beard.” “I was very dandruffy and unkempt.”
With 2007 underway, and VBS.tv officially launched, much of Morton’s energy was funneled into video work (on top of writing and editing content for the magazine and growing blog) alongside other staffers, such as fellow veteran Ryan Duffy. “Video was as much of a cash cow as we could have hoped for,” Morton said. “And it was the saving grace of the magazine because the landscape at the time was pretty fucked for print of any stripe.” And although you can create a print magazine with a handful of people, video is a much more intensive operation.
As the adherence to video grew, so did the company itself. “The growth trajectory has been insane,” said Shane Smith, estimating that, starting in 2009, Vice went from 50 to 150 employees in just over six months, and has doubled its staff every year since. It’s a safe assumption that the relationship between adherence to video and company growth is parallel. As video expanded, they needed a larger team to support it. And the success of video allowed them to continually hire more staff. They currently have 500 employees at their Brooklyn office, roughly 1,600 internationally, and nearly 5,000 correspondents in total.
As the proceeding years gave way to massive growth of the brand in the digital capacity, the transition into more worldly and international content seemed inevitable. Shane Smith’s ambitions, too, elevated with the thought that Vice could become much more than just an off-beat culture publication. He saw bigger things on the horizon. “We stayed away from American television markets because it’s more difficult to sell shows and have any sort of creative control,” Smith said. But then came HBO. “HBO is sort of an anomaly,” Smith said. “They give you good budgets and creative control and they let us sort of find our way.”
“VICE’s smart, honest, in-depth approach to news coverage is a perfect complement to HBO’s programming,” said Michael Lombardo, president of programming at HBO, who oversees the show. With Bill Maher on board as executive producer and support from Fareed Zakaria of CNN, Vice was now able to showcase their view on the world in prime time and on one of the most prolific television stations in the world, a partnership that has proven a success to HBO. “The success of VICE on HBO proves that people are hungry to be engaged in world events when the storytelling is not packaged into sound bites,” added Lombardo. “People had a preconception of what Vice was in their head and then when they watched the show, it sort of transformed the brand,” said Smith. “And Thomas transformed, too, from writing for the site to being on a network television show.”
As the first season hit the screen, it was Morton who sat center stage. The host of seven segments, the once-lowly intern had, by happenstance, found himself at the epicenter of an soon-to-be-Emmy-winning television show, with segments from exploring gun problems in Chicago to documenting the journey of North Korean defectors. An unlikely host, with his unassuming nonchalance and lack of the clean-cut masculinity, Morton had morphed into the most-aired face of the entire corporation (even more so than Smith).
“I turned out to be pretty decent at hosting possibly because I had no sense of doing it beforehand,” Morton said with a shrug. People seem to enjoy holding Morton’s hand through these stories because he is genuinely himself. Swift and gravely in speech with metaphors, similes and deadpan comments stuffed into his monologues, he gave a refreshing take on the horrendous lilting cadence of a local news anchor. “You see me and get to know exactly where I’m coming from and I try to be pretty fucking upfront about it,” he said. In addition, Morton usually finds himself in humorous, self-deprecating situations—the butt of the immersionist joke. Like losing a wrestling match to a child at the Senegalese laamb wrestling training grounds, his small white frame dominated by the dark, muscular builds of the locals. “I do have a habit of unwittingly embarrassing myself on camera,” he said. “Somehow, in some cosmic sense, it comes naturally.”
His deep-seeded irreverence for traditional news, too, carried into his involvement on the HBO show. With his take on broadcast journalism being thrown into the spotlight of prime-time television, Morton’s resentments of present-day media was something he brought on site for his segments. “You see people ask questions so they can be seen as someone who asked that question...as the hard reporter,” he said. “For us, we have just been doing the same shit we have been doing and very slowly have been learning how to tighten it. And what we had been doing got us the show and proved to be what works,” he added. “There’s a real virtue to speaking as plainly as possible and to say things exactly how they occur in your brain.”
A much-overlooked aspect of journalists, broadcast or otherwise, is the duality in which they play along with the necessity of interaction and relationship-building. Not only do they have to form a bond with their audience, but also, and most importantly, with their subjects. And with Vice, and Morton in particular, the style of reporting that they present, with its borderline lackadaisical, “hey buddy” type of lexicon, has actually presented the subjects with a very comfortable atmosphere to reveal information about their lives and their current condition. “We can be pretty disarming with people, I have to say,” Morton said. “A lot of them are a lot more comfortable with us than a dude with anchor hair and a microphone and a tie. It’s much easier for them to relate. We aren’t threatening. The access we have been given comes from us going out there and being nice to people and asking questions the right way and being honest with folks and just doing really basic human shit. And it’s worked out,” he continued. Being a normal dude, which was taboo in traditional broadcast journalism for a long time, has actually given Morton the opportunity to gain access to experiences that allow him to present a well-rounded representation of what’s going on in certain parts of the world.
With season two of the show, Morton’s most memorable segments were in the warzones of Syria, examining the Kurdish communities and their fight for independence against extremist regimes, as well as investigating the aftermath of Russian nuclear testing in Kazakhstan, where children are encountering extreme birth defects. They were stories that truly allowed him to peel back the layers of the current condition, revealing the raw pink flesh of the realities of everyday life around the world. “It affects you deeply. You get to see the highs and lows of our fucking planet. It’s amazing,” he said. They were experiences that translated, in some strange way, into the pinnacle of his eccentric rise in the world of journalism, from amateur spitfire to thorough reporter—a rugged path as off-beat as the outlet he has worked for, a journey as honest as his opinion of what makes for worthwhile news. “At each given moment it’s awful, exhilaratingly, terrifying or saddening or whatever,” he said of his experiences around the world. “[But] that was the case before I went and saw that, that was the case when I saw that, and that’s the case now,” he added, reaching for the last few bits of his candy at the bottom of the plastic bag, pausing to slowly chew.
But, thinking back, Morton seemed to understand that the world is, all-in-all, an absurd and horrendous place and his job, although true to his viewpoint of what journalism should be, is still miniscule at best in the presentation of a truly complete understanding of the shortcomings of our planet. “People are the same fucking people everywhere on earth. But the situations are drastically different and so beholden to huge transnational forces. They have zero control,” he said. “It’s weird because you never really get to see the point where the individual hits those global-level forces. The macro and the micro are very well-covered territories, but it’s that sort of intermediary, cloud-of-milk-in-tea area that no one has a fucking clue about. And I have no way of capturing that, but I would love to try and capture that.” He stopped talking, took another bite of candy and rubbed his smooth, freshly shaven chin.