FORT WAYNE – Every politician – at least those who win elections – understands the power and importance of media in all of its forms. People who try to influence politicians tend to understand it somewhat but often tend to think that money, personal relationships and other methods are dominant. Then they often wonder why their ideas do not prevail.

There is an adage that I have believed all my life, in business and politics: Information is power. 

So where does one get information? If you are trying to influence people to buy what you are selling, whether it is a person, a piece of furniture or an idea, you need to understand where they are getting their information. 

It is obvious that primary sources of information evolve with technology changes. Political information in America evolved from newsprint to radio to television to today’s news niche chaos. America is a nation of information junkies which new technology has advanced, not reduced. 

There are two obvious problems that I believe are at the core of the political challenges we face: 1.) the overwhelming distrust of national media by all factions (e.g., fact vs. fake news, every report being “just your opinion”) and 2.) the threats to local news and information coverage as they are reshaped and often gutted by conglomerates. 

The net results in politics of these trends, combined with a few other demographic (e.g., increasing population diversity) and structural trends (e.g., the decline of political parties), is that name ID and the purchase of name ID have become even more dominant in politics.  

Donald Trump, Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders are names people recognize because they have built up ID with symbolic attachments and some measure of credibility of being advocates for a point of view for decades. This phenomenon is not new – from George Washington to Teddy Roosevelt to Bush 43 – but it is pronounced and headed down the ballot.

The purchase of name ID has actually become more expensive as information splinters. So, the entry level costs to win a statewide race, especially a potentially close contest or a primary battle in the dominant party, are soaring. And it isn’t just statewide races. Huge sums are required in congressional races, and now even in competitive state legislative and mayoral races. 

The challenge for our electoral system is that there has always been a preference for soft news over hard news and for gossip over facts. This is not new either. It was true before Gutenberg invented the printing press. The assumption has been that, in a free market, people will see the choices, the better choices will ultimately become the preferred one. 

However, if in news, you only see one type of news source, and that source is catering to your personal prejudices, you see no comparisons. When television choices were limited, we at least had some common base at least for local news. Because of the importance of media, we need to thoroughly understand what was, what the changes are, and thus be able to adjust what is happening. 

A little over three years ago, I proposed to the two most-watched local anchors in Fort Wayne television history, Melissa Long and Heather Herron, that we write a book on about television in our region. They agreed. “Television in Fort Wayne, 1953-2018” was just released by M.T. Publishing of Evansville.

The foundations behind this proposal were simple: 

1.) 1953 to 2018 is roughly the arc of the golden era of traditional television. It achieved news dominance in the 1960s (fueled by the Kennedy assassination and the space program, which accelerated universal acceptance of new technology), plateaued, and now has declined in viewership as new technology evolved. Television remains the most powerful and influential local news vehicle, but its dominance is gone.  

2.) Local television, and the television marketing zones, define who we are. We know the murders, fires, weather, sports scores, street names, personalities, and encouraging and tragic stories within those zones. 

3.) Tip O’Neill is famous for saying that “all politics is local.” In other words, what he was saying, in effect, is that all politics is local news. 

4.) Little has ever been written about an entire local television market, anywhere in America. I found one terrific general book on the subject: “News Is People” by Craig Allen. There are other good books on specific categories (e.g., children’s television) and many books that focus on one station’s partial history, but most are highly personal reminiscences or mostly griping about things that they don’t like. 

We wanted something that was positive, full of memories, but also showed how a local market developed, what people saw, and how it changed over decades. 
In his book, Craig Allen includes this quote: “The local news was special because every day you lived the events along with every person in the audience. There was no need to pontificate (like the networks) because you weren’t a thousand miles away.”

Our book doesn’t pontificate nor does it draw conclusions. But for outsiders, they can see how a local market worked. The story is told through personalities, not a politically partisan view. There are 500 images to help tell the story and bring back local memories, but they also show the evolving diversity of the region and how it adjusted over time. 

The primary local television personalities stories are a key part of the history because, as Allen noted, they lived among the same community with many typical problems faced by those who watched them in their living rooms. These local personalities that were invited into people’s homes for 20 years plus were, and most remain, the most universally known local celebrities.

Another key point of Allen’s was that when people were asked where they got their news, they not only included news broadcasts but the “Johnny Carson Show” and the ABC’s “ Wide World of Sports.” So, what did people see on local television that helped shape their lives, their sense of community? If you don’t know what your community is absorbing, you cannot represent it nor hope to influence it.

This is primarily meant to be a positive keepsake in a period of great angst. But understanding media and how it affects people is also important to every single person involved with politics. Craig Allen nailed it in his title: “News Is People.” People want elected leaders to serve them as well as lead. If you don’t understand how people get their information, don’t waste too much time lobbying for an issue or running for office. 

I have been involved with media since my high school years in the late 1960s – as an advertiser, being heavily covered in political and controversial issues, and as a commentator. I have always felt that media in all forms was critical to politics; three years of immersion in the subject only convinced me more completely. It is the sustenance of politics, which is actually the battleground of what information people receive. 

Souder is a former Republican congressman from Indiana.