Disaster Pornography and the American Media

How the media got us addicted to suffering

Aaron J. Alford
6 min readJan 14, 2020

In 1994, Baudrillard wrote a book called “The Illusion of the End” in which he denounced the manner in which western media covers war, violence, and disaster from around the world. Baudrillard argued that the media coverage of war, violence, and suffering is all part of the production of and alleviation of western guilt.

He called this twisted coverage and commodification of suffering Disaster Pornography.

Disaster Pornography and the Media

Most of us are familiar with the concept of pornography, at least sexual pornography: Images or media meant to titillate your arousal. Similarly, the images of catastrophe and destruction presented by the news media are like a drug, used by first world nations to feed off the suffering of the rest of the world.

Images of death and violence from non-western countries are extracted and reprocessed for consumption by you, the consumer. The production of disaster porn is, as Baudrillard proclaimed, charity cannibalism and incentives the perpetuation of oppressive conditions in order to sustain and prolong our enjoyment.

“We are the consumers of the ever delightful spectacle of poverty and catastrophe, and the moving spectacle of our own efforts to alleviate it. We see to it that extreme poverty is reproduced as a symbolic deposit, as a fuel essential to the moral and sentimental equilibrium of the West.” — Baudrillard

In short, disaster pornography shows us images of suffering and our efforts to stop suffering, which gives us a little dopamine hit.

Our news media is trying to get you addicted to violence, so they can sell you more ads.

Disaster pornography is the new drug. Or should I say, old drug.

Producing and reproducing suffering

Somehow, what Baudrillard warned of the year I was born is still going full force, unchecked, unchallenged, and no one is calling it out. Baudrillard said “Our whole culture lives off this catastrophic cannibalism, relayed in cynical mode by the news media.”

Now I can already hear you scoffing at my ridiculous claims, but consider these examples.

The New York Times Sells the Iran missiles as “an Action Movie”

The Iran war effort is being pushed, as I write, by American media. Take for example the New York Times coverage of a missile strike compared to Al Jazeera’s coverage of the same missile strike.

One is factual, the other wants you to imagine your favorite Iron Man movie. The New York Times wants to feed your wildest fantasies about the glory of war, and how beautiful it is. Al Jazeera, the non-western source, simply reported the facts. The big difference is the framing.

NBC Worships Trump’s Missile Attacks on Syria

Consider another example, NBC’s Brian Williams coverage of a missile attacks on Syrian air bases in which he described the wanton destruction as “beautiful missiles.” He said he was “tempted to quote the great Leonard Cohen” in that he is “guided by the beauty of our weapons.”


The U.S’s Cycle of support and betrayal of the Kurds

To better understand this cycle, look no further than the U.S’s support and then sudden betrayal of the Kurds. During the gulf war, there was a huge push for “humanitarian protections” for the Kurds, even after Saddam Hussein had already crushed them while the west stood by drinking our tea. In 2003, we start a war against Saddam Hussein, which perpetuates the instability that feeds our love for disaster even more. Then ISIS comes out of that chaos, and we are even more fed. Then the Kurds defeat ISIS, popular opinion of the Kurds goes up in the wake of the Syrian civil war and destruction of ISIS, only to have our president abandon them to be genocided on the Syrian border by fucking Turkey. You see, we never cared about the Kurds, only the images they gave us. Only their suffering, only their death, was enough to sate the American appetite for war, violence, and suffering.

The election of Donald Trump

Baudrillard argued that when the disaster market from around the world slows down, the west will turn inward and produce its own spectacles of disaster. Brexit and the election of white nationalists in America are great examples of what Baudrillard warned of.

Another example of this cycle of catastrophe is president Donald Trump’s election. Donald Trump received 2 billion dollars of free television coverage in 2016 leading up to his election. The media could not get enough of this crazy television host billionaire who thought he would be a good president.

The truth is that the media always wanted him to be the president, the source of constant disasters both here and abroad. Donald Trump is a president who:

  • Impulse killed an Iranian General without a declaration of war
  • Cut taxes for the rich and raised taxes on the poor
  • Put children, including babies, in cages at the border
  • Bullied a 15 year old climate activist on Twitter
  • Has been accused of sexual misconduct by at least 17 women
  • Betrayed our ally the Kurds and genocidal Turkey
  • Has actively supported a Saudi Arabian genocide in Yemen
  • Started a trade war with China for no apparent reason
  • Attempted to bribe Ukrainian officials into meddling with our election, and got impeached for it
  • Nominated a rapist to the Supreme Court
  • Supported known child molester Roy Moore for congress
  • Paid of a porn star to stay quiet about how he cheated on his wife with her
  • Is best friends with Steve Bannon, a outspoken fascist and white nationalist
  • Said that there were good people on both sides of a dispute between white supremacists and people protesting white supremacy
  • Pardoned a sheriff in Arizona who advocates for concentration camps
  • Consistently uses anti-Semitic tropes and promotes division

I mean, the list goes on from here, but you get my point. Donald Trump is a walking disaster maker, and the media worships him for it. Hell, Republicans worship him for it. Even when the media and right wing establishment claim to disagree with him, they put him and his hateful rhetoric on the pedestal.

The truth is, no matter what they tell you, the owners of American media want his reelection. It is just too good for their bottom line. A president who creates disaster’s like these is exactly what the American media needs to keep American addicted and the profits rolling in.

How then shall we live?

Disaster pornography relies on a cycle of production and consumption. The West is complicit in the creation of numerous disasters all around the world. When Donald Trump fucked with Iran, it provoked a response from Iran which is now played back by our media as a justification for further western intervention. This cycle didn’t just start, it’s been going on since before I was born.

The west does not respond to disasters, we fucking create them. It’s a process, by which we sell our souls to the devil. Although I fear this description is unfair — to the devil.

So how do we stop it? How we prevent the cycle of disaster, images, disaster? It’s simple; stop watching disaster porn. I don’t mean stop watching the news, but I do mean to stop listening to the neo-liberal pundits, the discourse of fear, and the spectacles of violence displayed for your pleasure. Listen to news sources who have some god damned respect for humanity. (This means not Fox News OR CNN, if that wasn’t clear).

“We have long denounced the capitalistic, economic exploitation of poverty of the ‘other half of the world’. We must today denounce the moral and sentimental exploitation of that poverty — charity cannibalism being worse than oppressive violence.” — Baudrillard

So I ask you today, to denounce with me the exploitation of disaster for our own selfish needs. Say no to the staged spectacle and eventually the market for these simulated disasters will dry up. When the market of staged disasters is no longer where we look, we will again be able to recognize real human suffering when we encounter it, and act to resolve it. Rather than ignoring the suffering of the underpaid, overworked, and exploited around us, we will finally be able to recognize their suffering as legitimate, rather than looking to the news for our moral compass.

To be clear, I am not asking you to ignore suffering in the real world. Quite the opposite. We are asking you to intervene in your local community to help others because you have empathy for them, not because you need another hit of dopamine. Think globally sure, but act locally with direct action to institute change for the oppressed around you.

Don’t cause a homelessness crisis by building luxury hotels and condos, and then say “I help at the homeless shelter.” That’s what evil people do. Don’t be that person, be a better one.



Aaron J. Alford

Media critique and memes. Writing about rhetoric and society. MA in Communication