The Washington Post has a new motto, displayed right below the paper's logo on its homepage: "democracy dies in darkness."
It's a new thing for the paper, which never had a motto or slogan in its 140-year history. Not through World War I, or the Great Depression, or World War II, or the Cold War, or Vietnam, or Watergate, or the War on Terror, or — or anything. Through all that time, including the period when the Post was lionized for shining light on Watergate, did the paper have a motto.
But now, it is "democracy dies in darkness." The paper debuted the slogan on Snapchat, and now it's on the website, and will appear in the printed paper in coming weeks, according to spokeswoman Molly Gannon.
Just to be sure I hadn't missed something, I asked Gannon if the Post had ever had a slogan like the New York Times' "all the news that's fit to print." "This isn't intended to be a tagline in that way," Gannon answered, via email. "If you're asking if we have ever had anything like the NYT 'Fit to Print' motto, the newspaper had long used in marketing 'If you don't get it, you don't get it.'"
That's not quite the same thing. "If you don't get it, you don't get it" is an advertising slogan, not a statement of principle. "Democracy dies in darkness" is something else.
I asked Gannon how the Post decided on "democracy dies in darkness," and why the paper is doing this now. In particular, is there some aspect of our current political situation that motivated the Post to do this?
"This is actually something we've said internally for a long time in speaking about our mission," Gannon responded. "We thought it would be a good, concise value statement that conveys who we are to the many millions of readers who have come to us for the first time over the last year."
I asked again: Is there some aspect of our current political situation that motivated the Post to do this now? "We launched this when we launched on Snapchat Discover because it was reaching an entirely new audience for us," Gannon said.
Take that as a no. Many readers will find it difficult to believe that the introduction of "democracy dies in darkness" was spurred by new tech platforms and not, say, by the presence of Donald Trump in the White House. Like other elite media organizations, the Post has displayed more than a little hysteria about Trump, and the sudden appearance of "democracy dies in darkness" just feels like it might have some little something to do with the new administration and a new atmosphere in Washington.
The paper's legendary reporter, Bob Woodward, has long been fond of saying "democracy dies in darkness" when discussing the issue of government secrecy. Woodward has said it in many speeches around the country. "The thing we ought to worry about is secret government," Woodward told an audience at Drew University in 2007. "Democracies die in darkness."
Woodward used it again last Sunday, on CBS's "Face the Nation," when he said, "The concern in the press is that we'll have secret government. That government does things that we should know about that we don't. And the judge who said it got it right, democracies die in darkness."
Despite that sentiment, the fact is, the Post has gone through several periods of what might be called governmental darkness without adopting a splashy new motto. Of course there was Watergate, but to limit things to more recent events, just look at some of the developments in the last administration regarding secrecy and freedom of the press that did not spur the Post to adopt a new motto:
Under President Barack Obama, the New York Times' James Risen wrote on Dec. 30, "The Justice Department and the FBI have spied on reporters by monitoring their phone records, labeled one journalist an unindicted co-conspirator in a criminal case for simply doing reporting and issued subpoenas to other reporters to try to force them to reveal their sources and testify in criminal cases."
By the way, the reporter who was listed as an unindicted co-conspirator was James Rosen, of Fox News, the Obama administration's least-favorite news outlet.
Speaking of Fox News, the Obama White House also declared war on the network. "We're going to treat them the way we would treat an opponent," Anita Dunn, the White House communications director, told the New York Times in October 2009. "As they are undertaking a war against Barack Obama and the White House, we don't need to pretend that this is the way that legitimate news organizations behave."
The Obama administration also regularly bested its own record in denying Freedom of Information Act requests. From the Associated Press on March 18, 2015: "The Obama administration set a record again for censoring government files or outright denying access to them last year under the U.S. Freedom of Information Act, according to a new analysis of federal data by the Associated Press."
Beyond that, the Obama administration set a tone of information control —darkness — that many veterans of Washington journalism found unprecedented. This, published in 2013, is from Leonard Downie, who just happens to be a former executive editor of the Washington Post:
The administration's war on leaks and other efforts to control information are the most aggressive I've seen since the Nixon administration, when I was one of the editors involved in The Washington Post's investigation of Watergate. The 30 experienced Washington journalists at a variety of news organizations whom I interviewed for this report could not remember any precedent.
None of that is to suggest that journalists at the Washington Post approved of what the Obama administration did. On the contrary. But all of that happened, and happened during a time when people at the Washington Post were fond of using the phrase "democracy dies in darkness," and yet the paper was not moved to proclaim "democracy dies in darkness" as its new motto.
Something must have changed. What in the world could it be?