Last Friday the Washington Post quietly unveiled its new motto on Snapchat. Yesterday the new motto appeared in the paper’s online edition.
“Democracy Dies in Darkness” – that is, absent the shining light of the press.
“This is actually something we’ve said internally for a long time in speaking about our mission,” Post spokeswoman Kris Coratti told CNN’s Brian Stelter. The mandate may have come from the top: Post owner (and Amazon founder) Jeff Bezos had used the line in an April 2016 interview explaining why he bought the paper. (“I’ve always believed democracy dies in darkness. Certain institutions have an important role in making sure that there is light. And I think the Washington Post has an important seat to do just that because it is located here in the heart of Washington DC.”)
As mottos go, this one is, well, dark. A lot of people are squeamish about the word die, preferring mealy-mouthed euphemisms like passed away. Not me, though. I’m seeing a lot of bleakness in the news these days, and I’m OK with an up-front acknowledgment. Let’s call an abyss an abyss.
Granted, the Post’s alliteration is a bit forced and the spirit of the motto is a tad self-congratulatory. But what is a motto for if not to self-congratulate? “All the News That’s Fit to Print,” the New York Times’s long-standing motto, is hardly modest. I once worked for the number-two newspaper in a two-paper town (San Francisco); it called itself “The Monarch of the Dailies,” which provoked both secret pride and overt mockery in us ink-stained members of the Newspaper Guild. The number-one paper – now the last one standing – still calls itself “The Voice of the West,” a bit of overreaching that also suggests cowboys whooping it up.
The Post would have attracted criticism no matter what it chose as its motto. What did the critics, self appointed and otherwise, have to say about this one?
“Lighten up … it’s just a newspaper slogan,” wrote Michael McGough on the opinion page of the Los Angeles Times; he pointed out that the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and the Toledo Blade both used to call themselves “One of America’s Great Newspapers.” Mother Jones called the Post’s new slogan “a message for Donald Trump.” Slate slapped together a list of “15 Metal Albums Whose Titles Are Less Dark Than the Washington Post’s New Motto.”
The Twitterati had a field day.
From the Progressive Resistance League, whose own motto is “Facts Matter”:
From the producer of Activated Citizen Radio:
The Washington Post's new slogan "Democracy Dies in Darkness" crystallizes in 4 words the danger of Trump's explicit war on the free press. pic.twitter.com/buqu0xqKGZ— Jonathan Riley (@JonRiley7) February 23, 2017
From a New York Times reporter:
I love the WaPo, and subscribe, and want to love the new slogan. But it reads a little too much like the tagline for a movie. pic.twitter.com/VarLUS2BKy
— John Schwartz (@jswatz) February 22, 2017
From a Huffington Post reporter:
From someone whose Twitter bio includes the hashtag #BernieWouldHaveWon:
From the editor of the right-leaning Commentary:
"Democracy Dies in Darkness But I Got This Cute Little Night-Light at Amazon for Just $4.99 and It's Free Shipping Because I Have Prime"
— John Podhoretz (@jpodhoretz) February 22, 2017
Time magazine’s politics editor had some fun imagining how other media outlets would have rendered the motto:
Lookups for 'democracy' spiked after The Washington Post unveiled its new slogan: "Democracy Dies in Darkness." https://t.co/2OXbjqJG8U— Merriam-Webster (@MerriamWebster) February 22, 2017
Rendered in New York Times prepositional-headline style:
In Darkness, a Democracy Dies— Matthew Yglesias (@mattyglesias) February 22, 2017
Meanwhile, the Post wasted no time turning the slogan into merchandise, including this onesie (in black only) for very serious babies. (Hat tip: Allison Michaels, whose Twitter bio says she works for the Post.)
UPDATE: The Post tells the story behind the slogan. Jeff Bezos had heard it from veteran reporter Bob Woodward, whose source “appears to be Judge Damon J. Keith, of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit, who ruled in a pre-Watergate era case that the government couldn’t wiretap individuals without a warrant. In his decision, Keith apparently coined a variation on The Post’s motto, writing that ‘Democracy dies in the dark’.” Before settling on the new motto, a working group brainstormed “more than 500 would-be slogans. The choices ranged from the heroic (‘Dauntless Defenders of the Truth’) to the clunky (‘American democracy lives down the street. No one keeps closer watch.’) to the Zen-like (‘Yes. Know.’).”