Counselor to the president Kellyanne Conway was discussing critical press coverage during a forum at the Newseum in Washington on Wednesday, when she appeared to be caught off-guard by a question from her interviewer, columnist Michael Wolff. This was their exchange:
WOLFF: How personal do you take this?
CONWAY: How personal — how personally do I take what?
WOLFF: What the, um, this coverage of you — “democracy dies in darkness” — because I'm going to tell you, when they say “democracy dies in darkness,” you're the darkness.
CONWAY: I'm not the darkness.
Conway went on to say that “just because somebody says something doesn't make it true.”
The “somebody,” in case it isn't obvious (look up), is The Washington Post, which unveiled “Democracy Dies in Darkness” as the newspaper's new slogan in February.
Michael Wolff tells Kellyanne Conway: "When they say democracy dies in darkness, you're the darkness." https://t.co/lScxpthUZt
— NBC Politics (@NBCPolitics) April 12, 2017
A bit of context is required to understand Wolff's question and Conway's answer.
For starters, Conway's initial response — “I'm not the darkness” — suggests that she thought Wolff was talking about her, personally. That doesn't make much sense. No one thinks The Post's slogan is a reference to Conway, specifically. Many people do, however, think the slogan refers to President Trump and his administration, of which Conway is a highly visible representative.
As Washington Post media reporter Paul Farhi explained after the slogan's debut, Trump actually did not inspire the phrase.
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. ... 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.
Let's also note that Wolff did not say it is his own view that Conway and the Trump White House are “the darkness.” In his columns for the Guardian and the Hollywood Reporter, as well as his commentary on radio and television, Wolff has often been sympathetic to Trump and critical of the press.
Here's a bit of what he wrote in the immediate aftermath of Trump's victory:
The media turned itself into the opposition and, accordingly, was voted down as the new political reality emerged: Ads don’t work, polls don’t work, celebrities don’t work, media endorsements don’t work, ground games don’t work.
Not only did the media get almost everything about this presidential election wrong, but it became the central issue, or the stand-in for all those issues, that the great new American Trump Party voted against.
A short time later, Wolff offered the following guidance to fellow journalists: “We are not in an oppositional moment right now; that has passed. ... Let me send the message: Stenographer is what you’re supposed to be.”
Wolff subscribes to Trump's theory that the press is “the opposition party.” He also believes The Post's slogan is a shot at the White House. His question to Conway was about the degree to which she takes allegedly oppositional coverage by The Post and other news outlets personally.
Conway didn't seem to understand what Wolff was getting at. She was right, however, to say that she is not “the darkness.” Neither is Trump, for that matter. But the slogan is fitting in a time when the president seeks to diminish and discredit the free press charged with shining light on the government and other powerful institutions.