In 2017, The Washington Post adopted an official slogan: Democracy Dies in Darkness.
Melodramatic, to be sure, the Post was trying to communicate how vital a vibrant press is to the health of any government responsive to popular sovereignty. Without information, without knowledge, the decision making of the people is unreliable, and uninformed. And on that, I agree.
Still, the slogan has always bothered me, because it contains an unintentional hint of everything that I think is wrong in journalism today.
Consider the slogan’s construction. If Democracy Dies in Darkness, then naturally it is an almost holy mission for journalists to “show us the light.” Indeed, the slogan implies that for democracy to be saved and defended, journalists must be at the vanguard of saving it. It can’t die, and any good reporter who is concerned needs to do something about it. Is it any wonder that journalism today is full of self-righteous activists?
To most average Americans, a journalist should be an investigator and a storyteller. Someone who does the hard work of accumulating and disseminating information, dispassionately and without inherent bias.
Instead, it seems apparent that people — especially young people — are going into journalism to make a difference. To be agents of change. The goal is not to learn, but to reinforce already held beliefs. It is not to inform, it is to argue a point of view. It is not to seek truth, but to build a narrative.
That fact should bother all of us, even if you are among those who agree with the agenda of these new activist-journalists, because it is not in darkness that democracy will die, but rather its end will come from being suffocated with a pillow by an oppressive group of militant oppressors of dissent, which is already happening.
Since 2017, Bari Weiss has been an opinion editor and writer about culture and politics for the New York Times. She was hired in the aftermath of the 2016 election, because the Times believed that it needed to broaden its coverage and understanding in the wake of Donald Trump’s election.
Weiss is no conservative, though. She describes herself as a “ left-leaning centrist” and writes as a liberal who is not comfortable with the excesses of left-wing culture. Vanity Fair described her as a “ liberal humanist,” and she has constantly defied attempts to truly label her political views.
Tuesday, she quit the paper abruptly, and she didn’t mince words on her way out the door.
After thanking her colleagues and reiterating that she was hired to bring more ideological diversity to the paper, she unloads. Said Weiss in her resignation letter: “A new consensus has emerged in the press, but perhaps especially at this paper: that truth isn’t a process of collective discovery, but an orthodoxy already known to an enlightened few whose job is to inform everyone else.”
She continued, “Twitter is not on the masthead of The New York Times. But Twitter has become its ultimate editor. … Stories are chosen and told in a way to satisfy the narrowest of audiences, rather than to allow a curious public to read about the world and then draw their own conclusions. I was always taught that journalists were charged with writing the first rough draft of history. Now, history itself is one more ephemeral thing molded to fit the needs of a predetermined narrative.”
Weiss goes on from there to describe the bullying and harassment she was forced to endure due to her own “Wrongthink,” combined with her bewilderment that Times leaders allowed it to happen. “Showing up for work as a centrist at an American newspaper,” she said, “should not require bravery.”
The rest of the resignation letter is remarkable, and I encourage everyone to read it in full. Some of the scariest parts of the letter relate to the culture of fear that has been created for anyone who might dissent with the majority view inside the paper.
This is the true threat to the American republic. Free speech is a beautiful concept because it allows for the free flow of ideas — good and bad — back and forth in a public dialogue, so that we as a people may hear, judge and decide for ourselves what we believe.
That dialogue can sometimes be offensive. Sometimes it can cause distress. But no republic can truly stand while the increasingly hostile and vitriolic mob that lives inside the media and among us in society attempts to intimidate contrary opinion into silence.
Such tactics do nothing to advance their cause anyway, in fact it likely does the opposite by creating more resentment and anger.
The answer to troubling speech is more speech, not silence.
Matthew Gagnon of Yarmouth is the chief executive officer of the Maine Policy Institute, a free market policy think tank based in Portland. A Hampden native, he previously served as a senior strategist for the Republican Governors Association in Washington, D.C.