Wormtongue Inc.

Why mainstream news, and not social media or Donald Trump, is the greatest threat to American democracy today.

Wormtongue Inc.
“Ever his whispering was in your ears, poisoning your thought, chilling your heart, weakening your limbs, while others watched and could do nothing, for your will was in his keeping.”

Gandalf to Theoden, Chapter VI, "The King of the Golden Hall", The Two Towers, Lord of the Rings

Well that escalated steadily for four years. The fallout from the #MAGA riot is pretty much the only story on the internet right now and with reports of further insurrection looming ahead of a presidential inauguration, the National Guard being deployed in force and a second impeachment on the table, it's hard to really think about anything else. Amidst all the finger pointing, one of the biggest missing pieces seems to be the culpability of the mainstream press and to understand why, it helps to turn to JRR Tolkien. Yes, I know you’re not supposed to use Lord of the Rings metaphors once you’re over the age of 15 but just bear with me here.

First off, let’s acknowledge that for sheer entertainment value, this one was hard to beat. Shirtless shamans and white supremacists rampaging through the halls of Congress makes for some great television and if you think that sounds disrespectful to the memories of the five people who died, then you may not have been paying attention to what the news media has actually become in the last two decades of American life.

This is the kind of thing people now want to see happen, a prime-time product that combines the adrenaline of live sports with the intrigue of an HBO drama and the suspense of reality television. Breathless live commentary? Check. Endless replays and slow-motion analysis from multiple angles? You’ve been watching them all week, and so have we. Whispered conversations in the corridors of power and courtiers scrambling to realign loyalties? Take your pick. The lead character in imminent danger of leaving the show forever? Legions of fans, including some dressed in animal skins, are literally howling in protest.

While a lot of the blame has been placed on social media, not nearly enough has been given to the big news companies. They've done unbelievably well from the Trump story, especially in the last year, with a pandemic, a movement for racial justice and an election giving viewers even more reasons to tune in. Fox News viewership was up 43% in 2020, MSNBC climbed 23% and CNN jumped 83%. Fox News even made the top 10 for adults aged 18-49, despite its older skew, while CNN was up a whopping 95% percent in that demographic and had its most-watched prime time ratings ever.

America is now home to a political-media complex that profits on malice, division and indignation, yet professes shock and horror when real conflict happens. That's why when the barricades came down, the cameras were there beaming images to the news anchors to gasp at in horror. The revolution was televised, packaged up and sold to millions who tuned in to see what would happen (NBC and ABC’s coverage of the mob dominated prime time ratings on the evening of January 6th, drawing in 5.4 million and 4.2 million viewers, respectively).

In the aftermath, more of the same. A bad day for US politics is now the darkest day for democracy since 1816. Donald Trump isn’t just a politician who miscalculated – he’s the greatest threat to American democracy since the Civil War. A bunch of armed away fans are suddenly fascist terrorists who tried to overthrow the government (they weren’t). This might be an unpopular opinion to share with some of our more left-leaning US readers, but the truth is that this wasn’t a coup or an insurrection. There was no real evidence of coordination between government officials, civilian or military. An ugly protest turned into a riot and then a lynch mob, and they should all be arrested and thrown in jail, but it wasn’t ever a real threat.

What all the Beltway pundits seem to be missing is that the goal wasn’t to overturn the results of the election or take Nancy Pelosi hostage. Last Wednesday’s riot was more like Comic Con for far-right streamers—an opportunity to meet other like-minded fans in meatspace, and grab the world’s attention. In that respect, it was an outstanding success. The QAnon/MAGA crowd suddenly have a rich new set of real world events and martyrs to add to their mythology, and in the midst of the worst week of the pandemic yet, with over 4,000 US citizens dying every day, these maskless assholes have earned the kind of mainstream coverage that social media influencers can only dream of, bringing a whole new meaning to the concept of a ‘viral’ flashmob.

America’s ageing, baby boomer politicians are playing right into their hands. The Democrats are doing their best Neymar impression, rolling around on the floor and clutching their knees in agony, while Republicans - having committed the most horrible of fouls - are now pleading with the referee for national unity. Leaving aside the sheer cynicism of this gambit from the party of voter suppression, border walls and “Lock her up!” you have to admit that once again, it's all very dramatic, and hard to turn away from.

Journalists scavenge for loot on the battlefield, scrambling for an angle that will rake in even more eyeballs and dollars. It’s a GOP civil war! AOC felt like her life was in danger! Will the impeachment scuttle Biden’s agenda? Anything that doesn’t fit the story format, which includes most of reality, is discarded, and the enormous narrative-making machine grinds along underneath, setting up a cliffhanger finale. A presidency built on fear, rage and division is climaxing in three acts: an insurrection, an impeachment and an inauguration (and wait until you see what’s in store next season).

It’s been just two months since former US president Barack Obama solemnly told The Atlantic that his country was “entering into an epistemological crisis”, observes Gillian Tett. “If we do not have the capacity to distinguish what’s true from what’s false, then by definition the marketplace of ideas doesn’t work,” he declared. “And by definition our democracy doesn’t work.” For most people, the obvious cause of this crisis is social media. There seems to be a clear link between the arrival of Twitter and Facebook and the transformation of US politics into a bloodsport.

In its own way however, this idea is an example of disinformation itself. There is a profound disconnect between broad public concern with social media's impact on public discourse, and persistent scientific evidence that shows exposure to online fake news is concentrated in a tiny minority of users. According to the most recent Pew survey, less than 20% of Americans rely on social media as their major source of political news. Television by contrast, is the primary source of political news for about 30% of the population, and news websites or apps account for another 25%.

That means that television and newspapers, not Twitter, are responsible for the conspiracy theories. Take, for example, the Big Lie of mail-in voting during the 2020 elections. Around half of Republican voters considered fraud a major problem with voting by mail, and more than half pointed to Democrats as the most likely perpetrators of election interference. This lie, despite being repeatedly disproven by the most rigorous academic and legal investigations, set the foundations for Trump to claim that the election was stolen from him - leading eventually to the incitement of last week's riot.

To understand how disinformation about the mail-in ballots spread, Professor Yochai Benkler, and his team from Harvard Law School analyzed 55,000 online media stories, 5 million tweets, and 75,000 posts on public Facebook pages. Their findings showed that the lies that shaped the views of tens of millions of American voters did not originate in social media or via a Russian attack. Instead, they were driven by some of the biggest media outlets in the country, including not just Fox News, but 'centre-right' outlets like the Wall Street Journal and the New York Post.

What this means is that the usual suspects in public debates about disinformation were not the central actors in voting disinformation. There were no instances where clickbait factories, fake pages (Russian or otherwise), or Facebook’s algorithms could explain any peak in engagement that was not better explained as having been set in motion and heavily promoted by political figures and elite right-wing media personalities, and disseminated to millions by major media outlets. "Social media" the study concluded, "played only a secondary, supportive role."

For a democracy to work, elections need to not be viewed as existential risks, arguments need to be made off the basis of a shared set of facts, and political opponents need to treat each other in good faith and respect each other with intellectual honesty (and try not to burn any buildings to the ground). On all of these counts, mainstream American news companies are, and will continue to be, a far greater threat to democracy than Facebook or riot mobs or Donald Trump.

I've been thinking a lot about Grima Wormtongue in the past week. Not Peter Jackson's over-the-top, sleazy version, who was the most obvious bad guy in all of movie history (the less said about his butchering of the King of the Golden Hall scene the better). I'm talking about Tolkien's original Wormtongue, who's a little more like Littlefinger in Game of Thrones. "Upon the steps sat a wizened figure of a man, with a pale wise face and heavy-lidded eyes (...) he laughed grimly, as he lifted his heavy lids for a moment and gazed at the strangers with dark eyes." Malevolent and brooding, certainly, but not Brad Dourif's cartoon-villain troglodyte.

Wormtongue is of course, part of a rich tradition of sinister councilors whispering in a kindly King's ear, from Jafar to Dominic Cummings. What makes him unique however, is the way he controls Théoden. By constantly restating bad news, and casting events in the worst possible light, he keeps the king confused and disheartened. Interestingly, he didn't start this way: according to Tolkien he was originally an ordinary serving man in Théoden's court, but driven by greed and self-interest, he is eventually corrupted by a great and powerful evil.

As reports of Saruman's forces gathering on the border come in, Wormtongue emphasizes the impossibility of defeating them, and repeatedly reminds the king of how his son, Théodred, was killed in a skirmish with marauding orcs. Théoden slumps deeper into despair, emboldening his shadowy aide, who becomes ever more brazen, siphoning of the king's wealth (including his sword), and setting his sights on his niece, Éowyn. It’s a bit like hypnosis, without the trance. Gandalf, who has not "passed through fire and death to bandy crooked words with a serving-man till the lightning falls,” breaks through with his powers of persuasion, drawing on Théoden’s inner core of strength, but not before great damage is done.

If that's not the most obvious metaphor for 21st century news media, I'll eat my Herugrim. A sinister but familiar councilor, constantly restating bad news. Whispers of dark forces gathering on the horizon. Past traumas repeatedly brought up and dissected in detail. A greedy force, slowly siphoning off our wealth and attention even as it corrupts our fair sons and daughters. If you don't believe me, read these headlines in Wormtongue's voice and you'll find they make a lot more sense (this is actually an excellent way to maintain sanity when reading most news sites on the internet).

Sinister whispers from (in order): WaPo, Politico, NYT, Guardian, WSJ, National Review

Tolkien’s warning, unlike Peter Jackson, was subtle and elegant, but also very clear. Wormtongue, and his master, Saruman, both thought they could thrive as servants of wickedness, but were inevitably corrupted. It’s a warning we should heed in 2021. Far too many people in the news media today believe it's possible to serve cruelty and avarice without being tainted. They're wrong too. While we shouldn't be ignoring them, we should also remember they are selling us commercialized contempt.

This is a difficult and scary time in the United States. Honestly though, did we ever think the Trump era would end in anything other than chaos? The moment will pass, the inauguration will go ahead and America may even emerge stronger from the crisis, but only if it can get that insidious voice out of its ears. As Théoden exclaims after Gandalf restores his courage, "If this is bewitchment, it seems to me more wholesome than your whisperings. Your leechcraft ere long would have had me walking on all fours like a beast."

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