After Randall Palmer graduated from Columbia University journalism school in 1981, he had a hard time finding a job.
“Everybody wanted experience,” he said. Except for a paper in Saudi Arabia.
Before the job interview, “I called the Saudi embassy to see if it was a real paper,” he said. They said yes. They flew to New York to interview, and I got the job.”
Palmer moved to Saudi Arabia and worked at the paper for two years before writing an article about how the Saudi trade surplus had been cut in half. “They wanted to know how I got the information,” he said. (Answer: by subtracting imports from exports.) “I was more or less expelled from the country.”
He took a job with Reuters News Agency, covering conflicts and events in Beirut, Bahrain, Geneva, and Dubai. After a dozen years, he took a job as senior correspondent and then Reuters bureau chief in Ottawa, where he stayed for 20 years before switching to a communications position in the government in 2016.
“I’ve been in the Oval Office, in press conferences with Chinese leaders, and at 25 OPEC conferences,” he said. “The trouble [with journalists] is, you’re always looking for what’s news. And frankly, if the government is doing its job, that’s not news.”
Always writing about the negative—similarly to always reading about the negative—can catechize your mind to cynicism, he said.
“I remember sitting in the back of my church, being critical of everything,” he said. “I was even critical of the grammar. And I thought, ‘This isn’t healthy.’”
It wasn’t—Palmer was diagnosed with depression. “I remember my brother saying, ‘You’re depressed? You’re the happiest guy in the family!’ But as a journalist, I was in the gutter a lot.’” And as a Christian, he often felt alone.
TGC asked Palmer how the media has shifted over time, how journalists can regain lost trust, and if a Christian can work for The New York Times.
You worked in mainstream media for a long time. What are some of the changes you’ve seen?
When I was a budding journalist, my mother ran into New York Times correspondent McCandlish Phillips and asked him for advice for me. Phillips was at the Times from 1952 to 1973. When he arrived, there were no fellow Christians. But he always had a Bible on his desk, and he eventually started a prayer group. In the ‘70s, there was a phalanx of ABC, CBS, NBC, The New York Times, and The Washington Post. They formed a sort of media groupthink.
Phillips told my mother I should be balanced. If there is a story on marriage, you can quote the side advocating for gay marriage and also Focus on the Family, so you get both sides of the story. That’s something many journalists wouldn’t think to do—they’d see it as a triumph for one side. You can render a service by being balanced.
That was good advice. I nearly got taken off the Supreme Court beat by a boss who said I had an opinion, but I could show I was telling both sides of the story.
In the last two to four years, however, I’m not sure balance is always allowed. Now if you question the groupthink, you’ll get taken down by Facebook or Twitter.
It’s interesting, because it used to be that universities and media were allowed to probe and think. Now it’s possible for Christians to perform that service by asking questions. For example, Russell Moore interviewed Francis Collins on vaccines at a time when any discussion on whether vaccines were safe or wise was banned on social media. Collins was able to address those issues and perhaps assuage some concerns. That’s the kind of thing that’s useful—and increasingly in danger.
It used to be that universities and media were allowed to probe and think. Now it’s possible for Christians to perform that service by asking questions.
As a result, it’s harder for us to trust the media. On some level, we have to remember that journalists aren’t infallible or omniscient, so we can’t hold them to standards of perfection. However, some public blunders and clear slant do make people rightfully suspicious. How can journalists gain back the trust they’ve lost?
To be trusted, you must find sources from all viewpoints to ask the hard questions. It’s intellectually honest to present each side’s best arguments—and there aren’t just two sides; sometimes there are three or four. Then you’re actually performing a service by encouraging a discussion in the public square.
If you can’t discuss things, they go underground. That’s how conspiracies get fed, and how people lose trust in institutions. That’s what happened with vaccine argument. Entire groups of people have completely lost trust in the public conversation. So it’s important to be able to have these discussions out in the open.
People are intelligent. We have brains. We are able to hear ideas and think them through. The idea that we are going to trust what a big institution tells us sounds so Soviet-esque. We want to check opinions or proposals against Scripture, or against other scientists or thinkers, and come up with our own opinion.
Can a Christian be a journalist in the mainstream media?
Many employers place a lot of importance on some types of diversity, but not religious diversity. They don’t go to Patrick Henry College in order to recruit Christians. So fewer Christians work in the media: in a survey from 2007, 39 percent of the general public went to worship services weekly, compared with 8 percent of journalists at national media outlets. That is a huge gap.
These days, it is still possible for a Christian to tell a story in the mainstream media, by including all sides. And with a Christian perspective on journalism, you can show people horrified at what happened to George Floyd who are helping in their church’s ministries to the poor. You can show them doing laundry with people who can’t afford it, but also holding to biblical views on other issues. You can show Christians who love those of different ethnicities and different economic status, and who do that because of their faith. To be able to show Christians in an honest, positive, holistic light—that is extremely valuable.
When I was at Dordt College, my roommate said it was impossible for a Christian to work for The New York Times. I said you could do it until you got fired. And I think a number of prominent journalists in the mainstream media have shown it is possible to do without being fired.