TV tower
Our ostensible "windows on the world," the news media, mainly deliver audiences to advertisers.

Dissociation from literal reality is  by no means limited to television journalism.  The print news media are equally susceptible.  This is because no matter how hard individual outlets may strive to meet journalistic standards of excellence, certain common truths about their economic underpinnings cannot be escaped.

What the Harvard Business School can tell us, and the Columbia Journalism School somehow always seems to omit, is that while we may think of the news media as our windows on the world, their underlying business function is to deliver audiences to advertisers.

Yes, the media do deliver audiences by presenting the news.  But what, exactly, is news?  As a veteran newspaperman once quipped, "News is what the average person who doesn’t care about anything wants to read."  For some people this is politics and its associated scandals.  For others it is sports.  For still others it is UFO reports and Elvis sightings.  The news media simply decide who they’re trying to reach, and then feed them the kinds of stories that their research indicates will be paid attention to by the targeted segment of the population.

This is a process of seducing audiences by, in effect, telling them what they want to hear.  Is it a form of virtual reality?  Absolutely.  Does it have much to do with loftier civic goals like keeping the electorate well-informed?  Well, sometimes it does, when this happens to be an effective way to attract large numbers of the targeted audience.  But there are also obvious instances where it does not.

Perhaps the greatest barrier to understanding the news media as they really are is what they seem to represent.   It is all too easy to think of them as our sole way of experiencing a larger and more significant world that has great influence over the smaller and less important environments in which most of us operate.