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“The 150-year era of the great steel plow, central instrument of American abundance and strength, is ending,” wrote Hugh Sidey in 1992.

At face value, a story about revolution in farming practices has nothing to teach a journalist about reporting on the presidency, but when it is considered in the scope of Sidey’s work and career, “Revolution on the Farm” highlights something budding and seasoned political journalists would be well-advised to consider in their work.

By 1992, Sidey had several decades of experience as a White House correspondent for Time magazine. He started on the beat when Dwight D. Eisenhower was in office, and at the time, George H. W. Bush was president. Even after decades of rubbing shoulders with Washington elites and in the midst of a remarkable career, Sidey was still in-touch with his Midwestern roots. Written in a tribute to Sidey after his death in 2005, Sidey’s friend Roger Porter said that when he drove through Sidey’s hometown of Greenfield, Iowa, and asked about him, residents said, “Hugh may be living in Washington, but we see him often. He has never really left Greenfield.”

After the most recent presidential election, an election where journalists fumbled in their coverage of the candidates, struggled to understand the voters, and attempted and failed to predict the outcome, we need more journalists like Sidey.

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Sidey was clearly aware of the disconnect that can develop between people and politics. “The upheaval in the long quiet reaches of U.S. farmland has gone largely unnoticed in the din of presidential politics,” he wrote in “Revolution on the Farm.” “But it may mean as much to this country as all the other changes taking place around the world — or even more.”

Whether they are reporting on the highest echelon of government or for a local newspaper, journalists need to hear the troubles of everyday individuals. Journalists are uniquely positioned, and thus have a social responsibility, to elevate the public’s common personal experiences and connect them to the public issues being debated by politicians and covered in the media.

When people's troubles do not relate to the issues, distrust develops. Now, it appears distrust is the status quo. Only about two-in-ten Americans trust the information they get from local or national news organizations a lot according to a early 2016 Pew Research Center survey. Pew Research found trust in the government is at a similarly low levels. Trust can be built be, and journalists can do their part by searching out the issues that concern people and bringing them to the forefront.

Be Informative

The failure to predict the outcome of the last presidential election was not because of a lack of trying. During the election cycle, panels of journalists and experts debated the question “Who will win?” on television news all hours of the day. No poll on the candidates went unturned in pursuit of the answer.

In contrast, Sidey referred to poll numbers very sparingly in his writing about the presidency. He did not rely on presidential popularity ratings for headlines, and he was not in the business of speculating.

This business of speculation is called “horserace journalism” because it looks at politics like a sporting event. It involves strategizing and predicting winners and losers. It is easy to do, it is cheap to produce and it is entertaining. What it is not is informative. Journalists should not be trying to answer the question “Who will win?” Instead they should present the information voters need to decide for themselves who should win.

Hone Your Craft

Sidey is celebrated as a journalist because he did something very few are able to achieve: his work was both entertaining and informative. His writing is so loaded with descriptive words it often reads like a novel. Consider this excerpt describing the moment when the Canadian Prime Minister joins Sidey at lunch: “Dressed in his carefully tailored corduroys, Canada’s Pierre Elliott Trudeau moved with an athlete’s swift stride ... . ‘Nice table,’ he murmured to the butler when he saw the fresh flowers and sparkling crystal.”

Before there were luncheons with world leaders, Sidey honed his craft for years. He studied journalism at Iowa State University and worked for his family’s paper in Greenfield and local newspapers in Council Bluffs, Iowa and Omaha. No job was too small for the man. He made the move to a bigger market by freelancing for Life magazine while still living and working in the Midwest. This eventually secured him a full-time job there, and after several years at Life, Sidey moved onto Time magazine. He did not ascend to his column, “The Presidency,” overnight.

Be Mindful

When he was not returning to Iowa for a visit, or wining and dining with world leaders, Sidey was sitting poolside with the president. (One of his most memorable interview settings was the White House pool, where he interviewed President John F. Kennedy while he took a dip.) Several of the relationships he developed with presidents blossomed into lifelong friendships. The access Sidey enjoyed is a sharp contrast to the “media is the enemy” message that comes from White House today.

There may be a grain of truth in that message. In his book “Portrait of Presidents,” Sidey acknowledged the business had changed greatly over his lifetime. Where there were once 12 White House correspondents, there are now as many as a hundred, he wrote. And, with each succeeding president, they poke and peer with increased ferocity, looking for a story for the evening broadcasts, morning newspapers and the instant internet.

With the added scrutiny, modern presidents increasingly avoid off-the-cuff moments. They seem to desire to script every public interaction. They erect barriers between themselves and the press by surrounding themselves with advisors and spokespeople whose primary concern is to uphold the their image.

As a result of this focus on image, the presidency has become unpolitical. Today’s presidents and top politicians more often than not are media stars first; they are guided by how they think their actions will play out in the media, rather than a commitment to act with other politicians for the greater good.

Sidey had access to presidents and their inner-circles that journalists today can only dream of. Today’s journalists must respond to this shift in the presidency from politician to media star. It is important journalists be mindful of media stunts and call appearances by what they are. Too easily, journalists can become tools to politicians, when they should be in service of the public.

Be Fair and Balanced

Sidey did something that many journalists might be afraid to do today lest they be called biased: he openly criticized or sympathized with the subjects of his articles. In a charming profile, he highlighted John F. Kennedy’s boyish humor. When Bill Clinton complained about the focus on his personal life, Sidey shrewdly called him out for whining.

Budding and seasoned journalists alike are often afraid to insert themselves in their work like Sidey did. Instead, they tread very carefully, overly cautious in their pursuit of nonpartisanship. Confusion over what it means to be objective leads to overzealous attempts to remain neutral in every situation. Often their work is “he said” versus “she said”, and leaves their audience no more wiser or closer to the truth. These journalists should look to exemplify Sidey. He was not a passive transponder devoid of feeling, nor was he an aggressive partisan. He was fair and balanced.

Sidey, a boy from a small Iowa town, became a revered White House reporter because he never strayed from these core principles that should guide every journalist. Follow Sidey’s example and make journalism great again. 

About Mary Khan

Khan, a Parkersburg, Iowa native, will graduate in 2018 with a degree in Journalism and International studies, with a focus on the Middle East and the Arabic language. Passionate about issues of diversity and culture, Khan has taught English in Amman, Jordan and hopes to teach in Bangladesh after graduation. She has an interest in conflict and international news reporting.

Khan has held roles as a reporting intern and operations assistant for Iowa Public Radio and as a production assistant for Iowa Public Television. She is currently developing a podcast series titled, “The U,” with a student-run radio station. The series will tell the stories of individuals who have confronted issues of physical, spiritual, and mental well-being and give listeners related resources to utilize in the community.

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