Saturday, October 27, 2007

Disaster Porn


The news coverage devoted to the California wildfires this past week certainly seemed justified due to the obvious historic importance of the tragedy. Still, I felt uneasy about long camera shots of houses in front of the encroaching fire lines that would combusted on camera until they were totally engulfed in flames. CNN even gave the option of going to cnn.com to watch such images uninterrupted by commercials.

This seems to me close to "disaster porn", the voyeuristic viewing of shocking images as a form of arousal. Like erotic porn, these long shots of houses going up in flames are perversely entrancing. Pornography creates a kind of false intimacy characterized by immediate access to the intense but superficial aspects of a personal relationship without the give-and-take and mutual vulnerability that a true relationship demands. Just as saturation in sexual pornography can dull a person's ability to relate meaningfully and openly with other people, increased exposure to televised disaster coverage may not bring us as a culture truly closer to each other but will make it harder to truly connect as mutually vulnerable individuals in a fragile world.

This concept may be somewhat difficult to conceptualize. Surely it's appropriate for television to remove our blinders to the horrors that can happen to us and our neighbors in a moment's time. When the New Orleans residents were waving bedsheets with the words "HELP US" scrawled on them, didn't our hearts and voices cry out to demand a greater response from our national leadership? I still remember watching Fox Network's Shepherd Smith, along with Geraldo Rivera holding a baby who had been stranded on an interstate overpass for days: their voices almost choking with despair and rage they both angrily chastised Sean Hannity for his cavalier attitude to the plight of these suffering people.

So active news reporting is undoubtedly a good thing, and we need more of it. The absence of unvarnished war footage , for instance, surely helps to promote Americans' blithely sanitized view of the horrendous atrocities inherent in armed conflict. But as our camera-wired culture proliferates with each passing year I envision a time in the very near future when there will be a "Disaster Channel" broadcasting the latest in horrifying images that stupefy rather than galvanize.

XM Radio already has a continuously broadcasting "emergency station", Channel 247 (Twenty-four Seven, get it?) that reports anything close to a disaster happening in the country at any given time. If nothing bad is going on then the channel runs extended public service announcements on topics such as how to prepare disaster kits, what to do in case the water supply becomes contaminated, and other topics that presage imminent calamity. I admit I've found myself perversely listening to this station just to hear what terrible thing may be happening somewhere. I've noticed that after a few minutes my nerves start to jingle-jangle and a pressure has built up within me that needs relief. This was how I started to become personally sensitized me to the reality and effects of disaster porn.

I don't have a particular moral agenda against pornography, but I definitely appreciate the difference between erotica and images designed to shock sensibilities and erode a sense of both boundaries and values. And I know how unbridled access to pornography can sink its hooks into a person with often devastating consequences. So when a reporter sticks a phallic microphone to the mouth of a shocked disaster survivor and asks "how did you feel seeing (insert tragedy here)?" it doesn't seem much different to me than a cheap porn flick.

I have one last thought related to the California wildfires. Preliminary reports are putting the damage estimates at over a billion dollars. I want everyone to remember that this mind-boggling amount of money represents less than three days of expenditures in the Iraqi War. Please re-read and reflect on this fact: the devastating losses suffered in the California wildfires cost less than half of what is spent in Iraq every week, and just four times more than Alex Rodriquez contract to play baseball for 10 years.

Now that's pornographic.

(Note: the vaguely erotic image used at the top of this blog was taken (honest!) from the website of the South Asia Disaster Report.)

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