- The Media and Democracy: A Dialogue
Jay Rosen: You say in one of your recent essays that democracy is not identical to freedom. If this is so, it would seem that a democratic press is not the same thing as a free press. True?
Adam Michnik: I think that our journalistic profession, like any other profession, can be a craft, and that it can also be a work of art. The great majority of writers produce crime or romance novels, and make a living from this. Yet when we say literature, we think of Shakespeare, Lermontov, Dostoevsky. It is the same in our profession; there are people who know how to turn journalism into art, who know how to find their calling in journalism.
You asked whether a democratic press can at the same time be a free press. Yes, it can, because democracy is a matter of institutional order. Freedom, on the other hand, is what one makes of one’s own life. The state can provide me with a democratic order, but the state cannot be a free person on my behalf. Within the framework of democratic institutions, I can behave as a free man or as a conformist bureaucrat, as a person in search of truth or as a person who seeks what the goodwill of the boss will provide him. [End Page 85]
During the period of dictatorship, I did not see these things so clearly. That was because dictatorship releases in one a desire for democracy, but on the condition that one is in a position to make oneself a free person. It is only by living in democracy, however, that one learns how difficult it is to be a free person in a world of democratic institutions and the conventions typical of our century’s end.
Rosen: Your newspaper has an interesting history; it reflects your own personal history in its transition from part of the underground press to the leading newspaper in a commercializing society. I am sure that to you and your colleagues freedom of the press once meant one thing, and perhaps now means another thing. Can you talk about what it meant to be a free journalist—a democratic journalist—under communism, and what it means now, in the present, more complicated circumstances?
Michnik: During the period of dictatorship, freedom of the press meant for me more or less that I could write what I wanted to write, and nobody would put me in prison for it, even if I were to photocopy it and distribute it to others. I believe it was Vladimir Bukovsky, the Russian dissident, who said in the early 1980s that the very first test for democratization of the communist system would be whether in Moscow, just as in London, one could go into a shop with a photocopying machine, and for a small fee copy whatever one wanted. Not being able to do this was a very elementary experience of dictatorship.
Of course, the experience of democracy is quite different. It is the experience of the market that becomes the first limitation for the people who came from the underground press, because in the underground none of us even thought about having to sell our clandestine papers. It seemed obvious to us that everyone would like to, and needed to, read our samizdat publications, because we were saying things that no one else was saying at that time. Then the market came, and together with the market, horrible foreign words emerged like “biznes plan.” And soon it turned out that Gazeta Wyborcza, as a product, is no different from shoes or shoelaces: you have to sell it. Every day I must convince hundreds of thousands of people to buy my shoelaces and not those of my competitor. It is a brutal fight over the quality of shoelaces. But of course this is not the end of the matter, because if money were the only issue, then I might simply go and produce shoelaces.
The work of a newspaper, on the one hand, entails a business plan—and on the other, of course, it implies a sense of mission...