It may be the most widely debated and commented upon newspaper slogan since . . . well, has there ever been a widely debated newspaper slogan?
The Washington Post added a new phrase beneath its online masthead this week — “Democracy Dies in Darkness” — and the commentary flowed immediately. The slogan quickly trended on Twitter, drawing tweets even from the People’s Daily newspaper in China. It was fodder for a few late-night cracks from Stephen Colbert, who suggested some of the rejected phrases included “No, You Shut Up,” “Come at Me, Bro” and “We Took Down Nixon — Who Wants Next?”
Others called it “ominous,” “awesome,” and “heavy-handed.” Slate offered an alternative list: “15 Metal Albums Whose Titles Are Less Dark Than The Washington Post’s New Motto.”
The addition of the dramatic and alliterative phrase was generally misinterpreted as an indirect reply to President Trump’s phrasemaking about the news media (“dishonest,” “the enemy of the American people,” etc.). But that’s not the case.
The Post decided to come up with a slogan nearly a year ago, long before Trump was the Republican presidential nominee, senior executives said. The paper hasn’t had an official slogan in its 140-year existence, although it did get some mileage with a long-running advertising tagline, “If you don’t get it, you don’t get it.”
The paper’s owner, Amazon.com founder Jeffrey P. Bezos, used the phrase in an interview with The Post’s executive editor, Martin Baron, at a tech forum at The Post last May. “I think a lot of us believe this, that democracy dies in darkness, that certain institutions have a very important role in making sure that there is light,” he said at the time, speaking of his reasons for buying the paper.
Bezos apparently heard the phrase from legendary investigative reporter Bob Woodward, a Post associate editor. Woodward said he referenced it during a presentation at a conference that Bezos attended in 2015 in which Woodward talked about “The Last of the President’s Men,” his most recent book about the Watergate scandal.
But Woodward, who has used the phrase in reference to President Nixon for years, said he didn’t coin it; he read it some years earlier in a judicial opinion in a First Amendment case. He couldn’t recall the specifics of the case or the name of the judge who wrote the opinion.
“It goes way back,” he said. “It’s definitely not directed at Trump. It’s about the dangers of secrecy in government, which is what I worry about most. The judge who said it got it right.”
Woodward’s 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.”
In any case, the phrase was at the center of discussions when a small group of Post employees, including Baron and Publisher Fred Ryan, began meeting last year to develop a slogan. One planning document for the group suggested finding a “positive” variation on the early contender “Democracy Dies in Darkness.”
The goal of the paper’s slogan, the document said, would be to communicate that The Post “has a long-standing reputation for providing news and information with unparalleled analysis and insight. . . . Our position must be conveyed ‘disruptively’ so we can shake consumers out of their news-as-commodity mindset.”
It added that any slogan “must be memorable and may be slightly uncomfortable for us at first.” It also had to be “lofty, positive [and] not bossy” and pithy enough to fit on a T-shirt.
The 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.”).
The group ultimately ended up where it started — with “Democracy Dies in Darkness.”
Which means that the slogan, which will be added to print copies of the paper next week, could be among the most famous four words that Woodward has ever contributed to The Post. In time, the phrase might even rival “All the President’s Men,” the memorable title of the bestseller Woodward wrote with Carl Bernstein about Nixon’s fall.
“Well,” Woodward said, “it’s better than ‘Follow the money,’ ” the famous movie line that Woodward’s character got from his anonymous Watergate source, Deep Throat.