Media turns to disaster porn to keep an audience

Cable news would rather discuss Haiti's natural disaster than its man-made one

By David Sirota
Published January 30, 2010 1:30AM (EST)
Brian Williams
Brian Williams

The black T-shirt -- so tight, so come-hither. And oh, those safari button-downs -- joke-worthy on Eddie Bauer mannequins, but on news correspondents, so ... enticing.

America missed these sartorial seductions, pined for their sweet suggestive nothings. And now, finally, a nation of television addicts can thank its disaster pornographers for bringing back the lurid garments -- and the lustful voyeurism they evoke.

Yes, thousands of miles from the San Fernando Valley's seedy studios, the adult entertainment business is alive and panting in Haiti. This year's luminaries aren't the industry’s typical muscle-bound mustaches of machismo -- they are NBC's Brian Williams pillow-talking to the camera in his Indiana Jones garb, CNN's Sanjay Gupta playing doctor and, of course, CNN’s Anderson Cooper in that two-sizes-too-small T-shirt "rarely missing an opportunity to showcase his buff physique," as The New York Times gushed. They are all the disaster porn stars in the media with visions of Peabodys and Pulitzers dancing in their heads.

And we the ogling people drink it in.

Like any X-rated content, this smut is all flesh and no substantive plot. The lens flits between body parts and journalists pulling perverse Cronkite-in-Vietnam impressions (at one point, CNN showed Cooper and his T-shirt saving a child). But there is little discussion of how western Hispaniola was a man-made disaster before an earthquake made it a natural one.

Though neighboring the planet's wealthiest nation, Haiti has long been one of the world's poorest places. It sports 80 percent unemployment and a GDP smaller than the annual executive bonus fund at a single Wall Street bank. The destitution is tragic -- and a reflection, in part, of colonial domination.

For much of the last two centuries, Western powers used embargo threats to force the country's population of erstwhile slaves to reimburse their former European masters for lost "property." As Harvard’s Henry Louis Gates recounts, America aided these efforts from the beginning because President Thomas Jefferson feared a successful black republic would "inspire slave insurrections throughout the American South."

Crushed by this oppression, Haiti was then assaulted in the 1990s by American "free" trade policies that destroyed its agriculture economy and tried to turn the country into the world's sweatshop. In recent years, as the menace of Western-backed coups lurked, Haiti has at times been compelled to pay more interest on its debt than it received in foreign aid.

This is the real story of Haiti that the black T-shirts and safari button-downs (and, alas, their viewers) have never cared about. They've only noticed the country when a cataclysm provided more telegenic images than the daily death and despair of the island's pre-earthquake squalor.

Even now, as the casualty count rises, disaster pornographers barely mention the macabre history. They know that doing so would break unspoken rules against holding up a foreign policy mirror to America and against riling the politicians and business interests that contributed to Haiti's demise.

Rather than reporting on what made Haiti so poor and therefore its infrastructure so susceptible to collapse, we get clips of Haitians momentarily cheering "USA!" as food packages trickle into their devastated capital. Rather than inquiries about how poverty made Haiti so ill-prepared for rescue operations, the disaster pornographers instead obediently follow George W. Bush, who self-servingly says, "You've got to deal with the desperation and there ought to be no politicization of that."

"Politicization" -- so that's the safe-for-TV euphemism they're using these days, huh? Evidently, it must be avoided -- evidently, nothing kills an audience's heaving passion faster than "politics" or (God forbid) contextualized news.

Anything like that -- anything beyond the exploitation of raw disaster porn -- well, it might ruin the money shot. 

David Sirota

David Sirota is a senior writer for the International Business Times and the best-selling author of the books "Hostile Takeover," "The Uprising" and "Back to Our Future." E-mail him at, follow him on Twitter @davidsirota or visit his website at

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