“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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.