Intrigue Over the Washington Post's New Motto: ‘Democracy Dies in Darkness’ - Is It Trump-Inspired?

News & Politics

Three days after President Donald Trump declared the press the "enemy of the people," the Washington Post appeared to strike back with a new credo at the top of its website: “Democracy Dies in Darkness.”

But the slogan was not a response to White House hostility, according to a source who asked not to be named. Rather, it was the culmination of a year-long search launched by Post publisher Jeff Bezos for a new credo to succeed the paper’s previous (and faintly arrogant) advertising slogan, “If you don’t get it, you don’t get it.”

An outside firm hired by Bezos reportedly considered hundreds of possibilities.

The phrase, “Democracy dies in darkness,” does have its roots in a partisan political dispute.

 Ohio Judge Algenon L. Marbley coined the phrase  in a 2012 voter suppression case. The judge was challenging the Ohio Secretary of State's decision not to count provisional ballots cast in the presidential election that had been contested by poll workers.

Marbley’s words were echoed by Post senior editor Bob Woodward in a Sunday appearance on Face the Nation.

“The press is not the enemy," Woodward said, "and the concern in the press is that we’ll have secret government, that the government will do things that we should know about that we don’t, And the judge who said it, got it right: Democracies die in darkness."

On Monday, Judge Marbley’s phrase  appeared, without announcement, at the top of the homepage.

Combative Tone

The new credo strikes a more combative tone than the Post's executive editor Marty Baron sounded when asked about Trump earlier this month.

“We’re not at war with the administration,” said Baron, the laconic editor celebrated in the movie Spotlight. "We’re at work."

One source described Post colleagues in the newsroom as feeling “gloomy” that the new slogan is both negative and defensive.

“It buys into the Trump-Bannon narrative that the media is the enemy,” this newsroom veteran said. “It looks like we’re a partisan actor out to prove a point.”

A defining moment: the Post  is billing itself as a defender of democracy at a time when the president says the press is the enemy.

This is new territory for the Post. While the newspaper had a famously tense relationship with President Richard Nixon in the 1970s, publisher Katharine Graham had never modified the institutional credo of her father, founding publisher Eugene Meyer, who dubbed the Post, “An Independent Newspaper.”

The challenge for the Post will be living up to the credo of defending democracy.

In the run-up to the invasion of Iraq in March 2003, the Post squandered its independence. The editorial page rallied to the Bush administration’s bogus claims about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, while news editors buried the paper’s best reporting that cast doubt those claims. The Post had at least four good stories casting doubt on the Bush administration's claims--but none of them appeared on the front page. 

The Post in 2017

The Post news coverage has become more aggressive with the rise of Trump.

During the 2016 campaign, Baron sicced reporter David Fahrenthold on the Trump Foundation, generating a string of scoops about Trump’s promiscuous falsehoods about his charitable donations and his use of the foundation as a personal piggy bank.

On February 13, the Post, with the help of leaks from investigators, broke the story of National Security Adviser Michael Flynn's dissembling about his pre-inauguration contacts with the Russian ambassador. Flynn was forced to resign.

The Post has also had its share of mistakes, usually rooted in its reliance on anonymous sources. A lazy story about “Russian propaganda” smeared a number of progressive websites that had done nothing more than object to a new Cold War with Russia. The story had to be walked back with a long clarification.

So did a Post story about a Vermont utility that was allegedly hacked by the Russians (but actually wasn’t).

Such errors betrayed the Post's insider instincts. The corrections showed a willingness to accept correction. Now the Post's new slogan, Democracy dies in darkness, presents the paper as a defender of democratic norms under siege from a hostile president. 

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