The thriller writer Barry Eisler had a thoughtful post yesterday about the process by which journalists find themselves “compromised, corroded, and lost.” Eisler’s starting point is an interview of Chris Hayes by Glenn Greenwald. Hayes, an editor at The Nation and host at MSNBC, is also the author of Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy, which appeared two months ago. Greenwald writes about (and links to) the interview here, asking at one point how Hayes avoids “cognitive capture”:
In the book, Hayes described how American elite culture is so insulated that it “produce[s] cognitive capture,” meaning that even those who enter it with hostility to its orthodoxies end up shaped by — succumbing to — its warped belief system and corrupt practices. Given that Hayes pronounces this “cognitive capture” to be “an inevitable outcome of sustained immersion” in that world, I asked him what steps he is personally taking to inoculate himself against being infected now that he’s a highly rewarded TV personality and employee of one of the world’s largest media corporations.
Suggesting his own answer, Eisler offers ten warning signs of assimilation. For instance:
As the compromises accumulate, you’ll need a larger, more all-purpose rationalization to explain them away. I suspect the most common of these boils down to, “Okay, this isn’t my proudest moment, but overall I do more good with my journalism than I do bad. Plus, if I left this position, it would be filled by someone with (even) greater capacity for compromise, and less capacity for doing good. So on balance, I have to do this small bad thing in the service of the larger good I do.”
Do you find yourself identifying more with the public figures you’re supposed to hold to account than with the readers and viewers you’re supposed to serve? This identification can take many forms. Do you worry about whether they’ll think you’re a “good guy” or otherwise about their good opinion of you? About whether they’ll grant you various forms of access? About whether they’ll invite you to prestige events and speak well of you to their friends?
Near the end, Eisler points out the broader applicability of his warning:
And obviously, the principles we’re dealing with here apply to professions and situations beyond just journalism. … when you enter an enormous, shifting system single-mindedly dedicated to beguiling you into surrendering your values and assimilating you, you have to do more than assure yourself you’ll practice good journalism. You have to take the threat seriously, consider how many people have succumbed to it before you, and armor up accordingly. If you don’t, you don’t have a chance.
This got my attention. Thinking beyond journalism, I re-read Eisler’s post with my years as a university administrator in mind. Working through his ten warning signs of assimilation and testing them against my administrative experience was enormously instructive.
I don’t have any conclusions that I wish to share just yet. But I recommend performing this exercise, replacing journalism by your favorite context.