In 2017, The Washington Post adopted as its slogan, “Democracy dies in darkness.” At the time, quite a few people derided The Post’s choice; Dean Baquet, executive editor of TheNewYorkTimes, joked that the phrase “sounds like the next Batman movie.”
But now, in the wake of the attack on the United States Capitol, Donald Trump’s Big Lie about the presidential election being stolen from him, the clear and present danger of QAnon conspiracy theories and the tsunami of misinformation flooding social media, The Post’s slogan does not seem humorous, it seems utterly salient.
Democracy does die in darkness. If the people do not have access to accurate information about the actions of government, from the federal level to the smallest town council, and if they cannot find out whether those entrusted with governmental authority are honoring that trust, then they cannot fulfill their role as citizens. They become mere followers and dupes.
America’s free press plays the central role in keeping watch, not just on presidents, but on senators, governors, legislators, city council members and school board members, as well as bureaucrats, from those at the top of big agencies to those in the most humble civic department. Even ethically upright officials are not always eager to have their mistakes revealed. There is a bias in all institutions to control information so that a positive spin can be fed to the public. Journalists are often the only ones with the time and resources to break through the spin and find the truth.
The very worrisome reality today is that the darkness is spreading. That is because, over the last several years, thousands of local newspapers have gone out of business while half of the people working in journalism have lost their jobs. Big newspapers like The Post and New York Times are still there to shine light into the darker corners of the federal government, but most state and local governments do not get the same scrutiny as they once did. Why? Because, in so many places, there are simply not enough reporters left to do the job.
Democracy thrives in the sunshine of accountability and access to information. Darkness is where democracy dies.
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