A Little Bit of Darkness Is Actually Good for Democracy

The Washington Post has a crusading new slogan. Let's hope it comes with some good sense.

A beacon of light.

Photographer: Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images

Critics have been having a lot of fun with the Washington Post’s new slogan, “Democracy Dies in Darkness.” The paper insists that its motto, adopted last month, is not a response to the attacks on the press by President Donald Trump’s White House. Instead, we are told, the phrase is borrowed from remarks made by Post owner Jeff Bezos long before the election. The paper’s own intrepid journalists have traced the slogan to a line in an opinion by federal judge Damon Keith.

Keith is a brilliant jurist, and he certainly once used a similar phrase, but he can hardly be considered its originator.  Various forms of the slogan -- and the idea behind it -- have been around for millenniums. And there is a lesson in the consistent deployment of the same imagery.

The metaphysics of light is an ancient Western metaphor, traceable to Aristotle and studied by medieval Christian theologians. It proposes a duality in which light is good and dark is bad. The Post’s new motto is very much in this tradition.

The use of the duality to describe politics and democracy is also nothing new. In 1953, for example, Eric Sevareid of CBS News recalled his time in France and England in 1940, when the Nazi juggernaut seemed unstoppable: “those days of despair and defeat, when all that was good and decent in life seemed to lie dying in the darkness.” Examples abound. “Whatever other merits of democracy modern Russia may have reached,” wrote the magazine Littell’s Living Age in 1917, “it has not reached this supreme good of democracy -- daylight.”

To be sure, there’s a body of thought nowadays holding that we reinforce racist assumptions when we employ forms of expression that denigrate darkness. (Or, for that matter, words like “denigrate.”) The point possesses a limited validity. But we can examine that argument on another day. For now, I have a different question about the Post’s slogan. Is sunlight always the right disinfectant for what a government does? Or are there things that should stay hidden?

Let me explain the source of my skepticism. Some years ago, shortly after publishing a book about the selection and approval of Supreme Court justices, I ran into a retired journalist who had covered Thurgood Marshall’s 1967 confirmation hearings for a major newspaper. Let’s call him the Veteran Journalist. The attacks on Marshall in the hearing room were probably the most vicious ever launched on a nominee, but they hardly made the papers. I asked the Veteran why he had left them out. His answer has haunted me for the 20-odd years since.

In those days, said the Veteran, reporters “exercised a thing called news judgment.” And most of them, he continued, followed a simple rule: an unsupported allegation isn’t news. He traced the attitude to a general journalistic bad conscience in the wake of the McCarthy era.

How did this approach apply to the Marshall hearings? The Veteran gave me an example. Suppose Senator Dixie accused Marshall of being a Communist. (This more or less happened.) In those days, said the Veteran, the journalist had two choices. He could ignore Dixie’s remark, or he could try to figure out if it was true. If it was true, there was a story: “Marshall is a Communist!” If it was false, there was a story: “Dixie lies!” But what should never be reported, said the Veteran, is that Dixie made the allegation. It wasn’t the job of the press to help a politician smear somebody.

Of course this vision of responsibility and restraint is often impossible to realize in an environment where, between cable news and the Internet, every smear circles the globe in seconds. (Obama bugged Trump; Romney paid no taxes.) But the news media should still do their best. And not only when covering government. Private institutions, too, should not be able to count on journalistic assistance when making personal attacks.

On March 9, the Washington Redskins management fired the team’s general manager. The team chased him out the door with anonymous allegations that he had been drunk at work. The Washington Post published the allegations. There was no reason to do so. As the Post itself admitted later, its ethics rules prohibit the use of its pages by unnamed sources to initiate personal attacks. Here the sunshine actually burned the subject of the story -- whereas the anonymous attacker is doing just fine. True, the team is not a government agency. But the same principle should apply.

Nor is the problem restricted to smears. A liberal Democratic senator told me how he and a conservative Republican, working together to craft a compromise on a controversial piece of legislation, had to abandon what they thought were secret efforts because someone leaked their meetings to the blogosphere, which of course exploded -- on both sides. No compromise was reached, and the gridlock continued. It’s not obvious how the sunshine helped.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m still a First Amendment near-absolutist. I admire the work that journalists do, and I cringe when they are the subject of blanket attacks. I hope, however, that in the rush to shine light on every hidden crevice they will remember that there are times when a good silence actually helps things run better -- especially when the institutions they cover are themselves the source of the darkness.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.