Tolstoy on Mass Media

I was recently reading an essay by Tolstoy on Shakespeare1 and was pleasantly surprised to read the following explanation by the author of how the media grows the importance of trivial events far out of proportion. You could post the same words about the Internet today and they would be just as true and even more relevant.

With the development of the press, it has now come to pass that so soon as any event, owing to casual circumstances, receives an especially prominent significance, immediately the organs of the press announce this significance. As soon as the press has brought forward the significance of the event, the public devotes more and more attention to it. The attention of the public prompts the press to examine the event with greater attention and in greater detail. The interest of the public further increases, and the organs of the press, competing with one another, satisfy the public demand. The public is still more interested; the press attributes yet more significance to the event. So that the importance of the event, continually growing, like a lump of snow, receives an appreciation utterly inappropriate to its real significance, and this appreciation, often exaggerated to insanity, is retained so long as the conception of life of the leaders of the press and of the public remains the same.

Leo Tolstoy

  1. Here is a Gutenberg copy of the essay. It’s a criticism (not merely a critique) of Shakespeare and is worth reading, though if you do plan to read it make sure to read Tolstoy’s What Is Art? first as the definition of art on which Tolstoy arrives there is essential to understanding this critique. George Orwell also wrote a critique of Tolstoy’s essay called Lear, Tolstoy and the Fool, which offers a good counter-argument.
July 2012