Divinity Dialogues: Investigative Journalist Joshua Eaton on the 'Hot Take Industrial Complex'

June 4, 2021
Joshua Eaton, MDiv ’10, investigative journalist and 2021 Gomes Honoree.
Joshua Eaton, MDiv ’10, investigative journalist and 2021 Gomes Honoree.

Introducing Divinity Dialogues—a special edition podcast series from Harvard Divinity School that puts conversations on faith, purpose, and bearing witness at the center of today’s most pressing issues.

Today, we hear from HDS alum Joshua Eaton, MDiv ’10, investigative journalist and one of this year’s Gomes Distinguished Alumni Honorees. Based in Washington, D.C., Joshua Eaton holds the powerful accountable and gives a voice to the vulnerable. He has worked with investigative teams at CQ Roll Call and ThinkProgress.

In the interview, Eaton talks how spirituality has moved him in his career, what we can do to bring ethics and compassion back to leadership, and how to keep the vital work of storytelling alive in a world governed by the “hot take industrial complex.”

Listen below:

“The future is bright with promise because you’re in it. And my word to you is don’t give up, don’t give out, don’t give in! It is yours to make, and those who come after you will be very grateful for your witness.”

AMIE MONTEMURRO: The voice you just heard belongs to the late Reverend Peter J. Gomes speaking to Harvard University in a 2010 Keynote Address on “Harvard’s Transition to a More Diverse Community.”

Distinguished faculty member for four decades. Senior minister at Memorial Church in Harvard Yard.  Rev. Peter J. Gomes is remembered fondly for his spirited take on the world and serving as a moral compass for the community.

I am Amie Montemurro with Harvard Divinity School, and this is Divinity Dialogues—conversations on faith, purpose, and bearing witness.

Today, we begin a series of special edition interviews with this year’s Gomes Distinguished Alumni Honorees.

Each year, the Alumni/Alumnae Council honors the legacy of Reverend Gomes by recognizing graduates whose excellence in life, work, and service pays homage to the mission and values of the Harvard Divinity School.

From investigative journalism to intersectional poetry and Buddhist ministry to bioethics in medicine, this year’s honorees bring the Divinity School’s vision—working in service of a just world at peace across religious and cultural divides—to fruition.

Each week in June, we’ll hear the stories of our honorees.

To start us off, I interviewed Joshua Eaton, who earned his Master of Divinity degree in 2010. Joshua is a journalist whose stories have held the powerful accountable and given a voice to the vulnerable. Based in Washington, D.C., Joshua has worked on investigation teams at CQ Roll Call and ThinkProgress.

A quick production note: This interview took place in April 2021, in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic. Joshua and I met over Zoom to avoid travel and practice good public health measures.

AMIE MONTEMURRO: Can you say a little bit about your relationship with religion and/or spirituality particularly the role it may have played before you joined the Divinity School community?

JOSHUA EATON: Yeah, so I grew up Catholic in the South, in the Bible belt in Athens, Georgia. And although I was Catholic, I went to a fundamentalist Baptist grade school. So a lot of religion when I was growing up. I got interested in Buddhism in college as one does and began practicing and began studying it, started attending retreats with two Tibetan teachers.

So I was raised by my mother and my grandmother. My dad wasn't really in the picture when I was growing up and my mother and grandmother's family is very working class and I'm the first person in my immediate family on that side to graduate from college.

And also, backing up a little bit, the summer before my senior year of college, I had become very interested in Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker Movement. And so I looked around and found an internship, again like internship, quote unquote, really "work, study" at Haley House in Boston, which is kind of a Buddhist Catholic worker house.

Kathe McKenna, who ones of the people who founded it and who runs it now, she's a Buddhist. One of the permanent residents there when I was there was the future Lama Rod, the Rod soon-to-be-called Lama. And so I knew Lama Rod there. And that was an incredible experience, and that is how I became aware of the Divinity School.

The following summer, summer after I graduated, I went to the monastery for part of the summer. And then I started an AmeriCorps program in Georgia for a year and it was while I was in that program that I applied to HDS. I actually didn't apply anywhere else. I was like I want to go this place.

First generation college graduate, I went to the University of West Georgia, not necessarily an Ivy feeder school. And so I knew it was kind of a moonshot and I thought, well, if this doesn't work out, I'll keep working in homeless services or something. I'll do something. I have no idea what my life would be like had that happened but I, much to my surprise, got accepted.

AMIE MONTEMURRO: Thank you so much for sharing that background on that story and you referenced in that response the idea that the Harvard Divinity School is oftentimes surprising to a lot of folks when they realize it is a multifaith, interfaith space with 30-plus different backgrounds and religion or spiritual identities in the student body. So, with that surprise in mind, is there something else that you may have learned here that others might be interested in or surprised to learn? Is there a certain myth that you could help bust for folks who might not have as broad an understanding of what the Divinity School is?

JOSHUA EATON: I don't think a lot of people really know what to do with Divinity School period, or what to think of them. I remember one of my classmates when I was at HDS, she was taking a course at another-- I don't remember if it was the Kennedy School or where it was, but she was taking a course in another school. And one of the other students asked her something like, so theologists learn how to pray?

I think a lot of people think of knowing about religion is like maybe knowing a set of facts about religions instead of having some broader understanding of religion as a category of human experience and what that means and religiosity. After going to the Divinity School, when I look at some of that ideology is coming out of Silicon Valley, for example, that aren't explicitly about any, well, I'll say any sort of metaphysical higher power aren't about any kind of afterlife or anything necessarily supernatural, anything that most people would think of as religion. But I see them and I think, oh, there's some religion at play there.

AMIE MONTEMURRO: Sure. Or spirituality or just some sense of the mystical, right?


AMIE MONTEMURRO: Interesting. Thank you. Now to a bit of a broader question. And we're just curious that from your perspective, how can we as individuals find our way to lead with ethics and with compassion, especially while weathering difficulties?

JOSHUA EATON: I think I'll say this when I was reading this question, I was struggling with it because part of it has to do with my politics, which I, as a reporter, I largely keep under my hat but also with my spirituality. So I said I did Buddhist studies. When I was at HDS, I was very active in it, but I started going back to church a few years ago.

I wouldn't say that I'm not Buddhist anymore, but my main spiritual community right now is church. Although during the pandemic, my main spiritual community has been Netflix. But that's a different matter. But I guess the term leadership kind of makes me uncomfortable in a lot of ways because I mean, I really believe all that stuff about the first being last and the last thing first.

If you're in a leadership position, even if you're not in a leadership position, if you're just around the people who are in leadership positions, the way to do that ethically is not to fetishize it, not to fetishize power.

When you were talking about fetishizing leadership or power, given your background with Buddhism, I have to ask: Is there an attachment, non-attachment issue at play there, that if you're so attached to power, you're almost in a space where you can then create suffering rather than mitigating harm?

I don't think many of my friends in college came fromit's not completely true but most of them they didn't have parents who were lawyers. So Harvard was a really new experience for me in that way and it was a specially new experience. I mean Harvard, you may not want me to say this, but I will and that's Harvard makes its brand on fetishizing leadership, on producing leaders.

And that was maybe a negative education for me in a way. I think that's definitely less pronounced at the Divinity School and like the Ed School probably because I spent some time over there, in the library over there. But just as an institution that ethos pervades the place.

AMIE MONTEMURRO: Sure. It's a metric of success.


And then, I think also as a reporter, the power has to have accountability. That's one of the most, if not the most important role, that the press plays is there has to be accountability. And there has to be accountability even for people you like or people you think are good or people you think are trying to do the right thing.

AMIE MONTEMURRO: Thank you. And I wanted to follow up by asking, how does what you learned at the Harvard Divinity School translate to your understanding of leadership?

JOSHUA EATON: The story of Buddhism is the story of someone who gave up leadership. Siddhartha Gautama, he left the palace. Despite the best efforts of his family, he left the palace. And so if in Christianity, the symbol of power is Christ on the cross then in Buddhism it's the Buddha in robes made of rags and underneath the tree, the Bodhi Tree.

AMIE MONTEMURRO: A few questions about how you bring your education to fruition in your everyday experiences. So for instance, as a journalist with a master's in divinity, how do you foster respect for pluralism in your work and in your everyday life?

JOSHUA EATON: That's an interesting. When I'm thinking about my work and what I'm trying to do, fostering pluralism doesn't necessarily come to mind. Although I mean, it's certainly relevant. But I think of my work in terms ofI mean, so I think as a journalist, I'm not an advocate and I'm not an activist but journalism does have certain baseline fundamental values to wrestle in.

I think democracy is a baseline fundamental value for journalism. Free speech, free press, certainly. Baseline fundamental values for journalism, I think equity on the basis of race, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, religion, ethnicity, national origin, et cetera, is or at least should be baseline fundamental value that journalists wrestle in.

And so I think it needs to be baked into the pie. And then so when we talk about accountability in journalism. What are we holding people accountable to? I mean, often we're holding them accountable for their own words. But we're also holding them accountable to those baseline fundamental values.

Too often in journalism, I think that religion reporting can get relegated to the style or the lifestyle section. It's like a soft Sunday feature. And for example, when people interview the Dalai Lama, however wonderful I think the Dalai Lama is, and he is wonderful in many, many ways, but people don't interview him the way they would interview another world leader or the way they would interview the pope.

It's not as hard hitting and there can be a sort of backhanded prejudice to that, a sort of condescension to that or patronizing to that.

What I'm trying to say is I don't think that fostering pluralism is all like singing Kumbaya and holding hands around the fire. I think that part of fostering pluralism is holding religious leaders in all these different communities accountable in the same way that you would hold political leaders accountable or religious leaders in Christian communities accountable.

AMIE MONTEMURRO: Thank you so much. You got at my next question about what some of the barriers are to fostering pluralism or frankly getting back to those fundamental values in journalism that you were talking about earlier so thank you so much. Is there anything else that you would like to say about overcoming some of those barriers or what we can do to make sure that those fundamental values which are critically important in journalism, but one may argue also important for those of us who aren't journalists? Would you like to say a little bit more about that?

JOSHUA EATON: In journalism specifically, I think one of the biggest challenges right now, and this is true in other areas too, is how do you fund work that is important, but not necessarily profitable. And in journalism a lot of times that means investigative work. It means coverage of under-covered communities.

And the quickest way if you're looking for clicks and you're looking for eyeballs for like ad revenue for example, the quickest way to get that is to publish a story that basically confirms people's outrage

One of the few public opinions as a reporter I do have is that there's too much opinion and not enough reporting. I think the hot take industrial complex is massive and we need more original reporting and it's good to seek that out.

AMIE MONTEMURRO: Hot take industrial complex. Thank you for that. I will cite you when I use it later. And just some closing thoughts here. The Divinity School's focus can sometimes be characterized as, quote, "making a world of difference." What are one or two tangible ways that everyday folks can help bring that focus to fruition So in other words, how can we see the vision for ethical leadership or getting closer to an original source? How can we see that play out in action?

JOSHUA EATON: Subscribe to your local newspaper. Very, very important. I think in terms of journalism, trying to read those people who are doing original reporting, sharing their work, supporting them when you can. I know it's a little between the 500,000 streaming services we all have to subscribe to now and the publications we all want to read, it can be a lot but it does help.

And I think especially the more people read the stories that are maybe a little bit less immediately satisfying but important, people in newsrooms really do pay attention to what people are reading. And it really does make a huge, huge difference if people are reading those things and sharing them.

And misinformation is such a huge problem right now. And a lot of it is driven by this kind of immediately satisfying stuff that confirms people's priors and I don't think most Fox News viewers probably don't have an understanding of the difference between Tucker Carlson and the Fox News reporter who's actually sitting in the Pentagon press briefing every day and asking questions and talking to officials and putting in public records requests. I mean, there are people over there doing the real work of reporting.

And so I think it's difficult. I don't know how to swim against human nature in some of this stuff but somehow we've got to have a healthier news ecosystem. And I think a lot of that comes down to putting time and attention and energy and eyeballs and shares and subscription dollars into the good stuff. And also, if anyone out there listening is a moneybags who wants to just put a ton of dollars into investigative reporting then they should by all means feel absolutely free to do exactly that.

AMIE MONTEMURRO: Excellent. I love it. So watch out for the hot take industrial complex, get your local newspaper, support them, and a plea to any moneybags out there to invest in investigative journalism. Thank you. Three very tangible things to walk away from this talk with. Joshua, thank you again so much for taking the time to be with us. Congratulations on your Distinguished Alumni Award in honor of the late great Peter Gomes and we can't thank you enough for all the good that you do out there in the world and for your time today.

JOSHUA EATON: Thank you so, so much. Can I tell you all before we go, can I tell you all one, well, Peter Gomes anecdote? Is that OK?

AMIE MONTEMURRO: Of course, please. And thank you.

JOSHUA EATON: So I was at tea once with a group of other Divinity School students. And we were people standing around in little circles with their cookies and their teacup talking and I don't know what we're talking about. But we were just on our own little world and people were filtering out from around us and we hadn't noticed. And at some point, Peter Gomes wandered over to us and he just said, "You know, it's a terrible thing to be the last one to leave." and that was all he said.

AMIE MONTEMURRO: Many thanks to Joshua for his time, for his insight, and for bringing truth to light with responsible journalism.

And thanks to you for tuning in to this special episode of Divinity Dialogues. This podcast came together with the help of some remarkable colleagues, including Caroline Cataldo with her editing and producing expertise, Kristin Ponte with her exceptional work with the Gomes awards event, and folks across the Communications and Development teams at the School.

We’ll have a new episode coming out next week featuring a fascinating interview with Lama Rod Owens—author,  activist, and one of the leaders of his generation of Buddhist teachers.

You can find us on the HDS SoundCloud channel or subscribe to Harvard Divinity School on your favorite podcast platform to make sure you never miss a new episode. You can also find us on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube to learn more about HDS and our amazing community.

Until next time…