Daredevil Media Outlet Behind Rodman’s Trip

Brian Stelter
Product: PaltalkNBA hall-of-famer Dennis Rodman will launch a new product for Paltalk, a video chat company, on Thursday. Paltalk is introducing Firetalk, which offers customers unlimited calling and texting on mobile devices.
Photo: Getty Images

Imagine being the HBO executive who hears this from one of the channel's producing partners: "We think there's an opportunity for us to get into North Korea."

The executive was Michael Lombardo, and the partner was Vice Media, the Brooklyn media company with something of a daredevil streak. The conversation happened about a month ago, when production was well under way on "Vice," a newsmagazine that will have its premiere on HBO on April 5.

The company's bosses said they were planning a visit to the secretive country, centered on an exhibition basketball game with the flamboyant former N.B.A. star Dennis Rodman and three members of the Harlem Globetrotters. HBO decided to add what Mr. Lombardo said was "a little bit" of extra financing, beyond what it had already agreed to pay for the newsmagazine.

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"It felt like something that could be interesting for the show," Mr. Lombardo, HBO's president for programming, said last Friday as he recalled the meeting.

By Friday, the trip wasn't just "interesting," it was international news. Kim Jong-un showed up for the exhibition game in Pyongyang the day before, making Mr. Rodman and Vice's film crew the first Americans known to have met the North Korean ruler since he inherited power from his father in 2011.

On television and online, people were debating which group was benefiting more from the publicity, Vice or the North Korean leadership. At the State Department, reporters wanted to know why the United States government wasn't visibly doing more to debrief Mr. Rodman about his interactions with Mr. Kim, the dictator whom he pronounced his "friend."

The Vice crew remains in North Korea; several more days of filming are scheduled. But Mr. Rodman returned home over the weekend, and in his first interview — on ABC's "This Week" on Sunday — he said Mr. Kim was "a great guy" and said "he wants Obama to do one thing, call him" — which generated even more news headlines.

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To say this was all part of Vice's master plan would overstate the matter. The producers and reporters had no assurances that Mr. Kim would attend the game. But when they arranged the trip to North Korea, a rarity in and of itself, they thought like diplomats. To get what they wanted, they considered what they could give — and they came up with Mr. Rodman and the Globetrotters. "We knew he'd be tempted by basketball," said a Vice spokesman, referring to Mr. Kim.

The Kim dynasty's love for the sport, and for the Chicago Bulls in particular, was evident on the Vice co-founder Shane Smith's two previous trips to the country. In a telephone interview, Mr. Smith recalled that when the Bulls would come up in conversation with North Korean handlers, "their eyes would light up." The handlers made sure to show him the basketball signed by Michael Jordan and given to Kim Jong-il by Secretary of State Madeleine Albright in 2000, now on display at a museum in Pyongyang.

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Mr. Smith described his staff's chats about the trip: "We said to ourselves, 'Well, if we go through normal channels, it's almost impossible to get in. But what if we put together a sort of exhibition basketball team to go over there?' " It has been called "basketball diplomacy" in the press since Mr. Rodman and company arrived — "and that was the actual idea," Mr. Smith added.

Vice has a reputation for stunt journalism, having dispatched people in the past to war zones and hot spots overseas. On its main Web site over the weekend, an immersive article from India was sandwiched between a first-person essay titled "My Month Without Sex" and another essay about marijuana. The company also publishes magazines, records and YouTube videos, among other things.

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For HBO, the newsmagazine partnership — announced last spring — was a leap, something Mr. Lombardo acknowledged in an interview. But "the whole idea of Vice is to take you places where other organizations are not going," he said.

That's North Korea in a nutshell, since access to the country is so tightly controlled. To get in, a liaison between North Korea and Vice suggested that the company donate basketball hoops and scoreboards to North Korean schools — a good-will gesture of sorts at the beginning of discussions about a visit.

Vice employees based in China did so. The company also contacted Mr. Rodman and the Globetrotters, and paid them an undisclosed amount to take the trip, which began last Tuesday. Mr. Smith, apparently unwelcome in the country because of his previous documentaries, has stayed in touch with his crew there through brief sessions on Skype.

Mr. Lombardo indicated that the apparent nuclear test by North Korea two weeks ago, widely condemned by the international community, did not change the producers' thinking about the trip. He noted that Vice was an independent producer, like many of HBO's partners.

"This was not, and Vice is not, about going in and doing the definitive story on North Korea and arms," Mr. Lombardo said. "This was always intended to be, 'You know what, let's get our camera into an isolated country that we hear about, we read about and yet is hard for us to even picture.' "

Mr. Lombardo said he was in awe when he saw the photos of Mr. Rodman and Mr. Kim. Mr. Smith felt similarly: "It's kind of blowing us away," he said Friday.

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While aware that past visits by American celebrities have become propaganda material for North Korean officials, Mr. Smith said he was a "firm believer in dialogue." He was also aware, he said, that "the last 50 years of diplomacy between North Korea and the U.S. has failed." But then he quickly added: "We're not trying to save the world. We're not politicians. We're trying to show people something that they won't see anywhere else."

Vice and HBO have not determined when the footage from North Korea will be broadcast. The first few episodes of the newsmagazine are mostly finished; there will be eight in total, so it could be saved for the season finale.