Jul 26, 2012
The Method: Frank Foer on The NEW New Republic, Martin Peretz, Stephen Glass, Adam Moss & More
When mega millionaire Chris Hughes bought The New Republic last March, he asked Frank Foer to take the editorial reigns of the eminent magazine. But Foer didn’t exactly leap at the chance. He’d already given a decade of his life to the storied publication and was enjoying a two-year hiatus, freelance writing and editing literary essays by heavyweights like David Remnick and Buzz Bissinger for the forthcoming anthology, Jewish Jocks: An Unorthodox Hall of Fame.
Besides, he’d left TNR for good reason. “When I’d been editor,” Foer recalled in a recent phone interview with The Slant, “especially in the last couple years, it had gone through a period of fairly severe austerity. The magazine had ceased to be an exciting place because so much of my day was consumed with managing very limited budgets and constantly telling writers, ‘No, we can’t do X or Y project.’”
But Hughes, who amassed a staggering $700 million fortune after co-founding Facebook, made Foer an irresistible offer: a big budget and a firm commitment to long-form journalism: ”To return to a magazine that is not just growing,” Foer enthuses, “but has big ambitions for what it wants to accomplish feels like a once in a lifetime opportunity. To have the resources to send journalists to different countries and parts of America gets your editor pulse racing.”
Two months into his renewed editorship, Foer spoke to The Slant from his offices in Washington D.C. about the New Republic‘s harried past (rabble-rouser Martin Peretz, fabulist Stephen Glass, the Scott Thomas Beauchamp drama) and exciting new future. He also shared some outtakes from “The Talented Mr. Muth,” a recent feature he penned for The New York Times Magazine. But first he walked us through a little of his own history:
So, Frank, did your journalism begin at The New Republic?
No, weirdly, it all started for me at Slate in 1996. That was my first job out of school and that was the first summer of Slate. I moved out to Seattle and worked in Redmond. It was the height of Microsoft’s empire. Microsoft was to 1996 what Apple is to 2012. It was the juggernaut corporation that defined the times. They had intended to build this grand media empire, and they had in fact built a campus that was going to be devoted to their media outlets. They had a women’s magazine called Underwire and a site that was going to compete with an alternative weekly called Sidewalk. Slate was just one little, fairly independent part of this Microsoft Media encapsulation. It was the one part that ultimately succeeded.
How long were you there?
So I was in Seattle with Slate for one year. Then I was in Washington with Slate for another year, where I had a couple of columns that I owned. Then, Jim Fallows hired me at U.S. News & World Report during that brief experimental period where Fallows was the editor, but he promptly got fired. And after about just over a year, I switched to The New Republic, where I’ve basically been ever since.
You moved over to The New Republic in 2000 as an editor?
I was a writer. I did political reporting.
Did you know from the get-go that you wanted to be a journalist?
No, I wanted to be an academic. I studied history as an undergrad at Columbia. And that was and continues to be the thing that I really love the most.
Why didn’t you stay on the academic track? What pushed you toward journalism?
My senior year of college I interned at the legendary Lingua Franca magazine, and I had a magical experience working there. Alex Star was the editor and his two subeditors were Daniel Zalewski and Rick Perlstein. It was a magical place to work. It really captured my imagination and turned me into an aspiring journalist.
What was it about Lingua Franca that inspired you so much?
It had a real panache and a sense of humor and a sense of fun, as well as being intellectually meaty.
What books or thinkers from those early years influenced you?
I’d say Edmund Wilson’s To The Finland Station. It combined the most gorgeous, lush writing and the creation of political ideas as the most vital of all human activities. That was a really important book for me. Then, when I was in my late teens I also read Nicholas Lemann’s The Promised Land and J. Anthony Lukas’s Common Ground, which showed me what journalism could accomplish when executed at the highest level. They told human, political and intellectual stores and intertwined them all.
Where do you get your news?
I’m an old fart who still ambles to his front door in his bathrobe and creeks down and lifts his newspapers off of the front walk. I read The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Financial Times and The Wall Street Journal. And I kind of love Twitter, but I’m more of a Twitter consumer than user myself. It’s the mother of all necessities. But once you start to Tweet, it takes up so much mental space that it crowds out other activities. So I fear committing to it. But it’s such a great vacuum for the web that I basically just follow links to various websites. For example, I know my friend and old colleague Jonathan Chait is going to produce two or three hilariously important blog items everyday for New York magazine. But these days, I discover those posts via Twitter rather than going to Nymag.com.
Speaking of Twitter and a ubiquitously tweeted story, we read your chilling New York Times Magazine article (“The Talented Mr. Muth,” July 6) about the infamous Washington fabulist, Albrecht Muth, who was charged in the death of his wife of 20 years. He inserted himself into the world of Washington royalty by marrying the D.C. socialite and journalist Viola Drath, a wealthy woman 44 years his senior. Muth went on to create a false VIP persona with such flair and believability that he duped dignitaries and politicians at the highest levels of government. It struck us that Muth’s posturing–the clothes, the manner, the name-dropping, the fancy stationery–is not unlike the posturing of any other run-of-the-mill politician. Isn’t every politician’s persona a kind of self-fabrication?
I think that’s absolutely why Washington does have this history of fabulism. Fabulists can survive here because there’s both rampant status insecurity and inauthenticity that permeates parts of the city. So when there’s run-of-the-mill inauthenticity, you’re sometimes numb to the more grandiose instances of it. I’m fascinated by power and the study of power and the way that things really work: the culture and morale of elites and the ways in which their actions, habits and motivations change over time.
Muth and Drath slept in separate beds, but it wasn’t clear in the article whether or not they were ever intimate. Did they ever consummate their relationship?
You know, I don’t know. In Drath’s memoir, it seems pretty clear that she felt attracted to him on some level and that she loved him. I’m kind of reluctant to go speculating in that area.
What do you make of the fact that all the other infamous fabulists you mention in the piece are gay?
Well, I think if you grew up in the era of the closet where you were fabricating a public persona for yourself that was divergent from your true self, becoming a fabulist may not be such a far-fetched next step. Being in the closet becomes a type of play-acting that fabulism requires.
If someone offered you a book deal on this story would you do it?
No, I think it was a great magazine piece, but I’m not sure that there’s enough there to sustain a book.
Back to The New Republic. We have few questions about the magazine’s more controversial figures, like former owner and editor-in-chief Martin Peretz, an intellectual force whose political views often get him into trouble . In Stephen Rodrick’s New York Times Magazine article on Peretz, he notes that you quit working at the magazine shortly after Peretz’s “Muslim life is cheap” comment, implying that there is a link there. Is Peretz’s extreme Zionism and outspoken hostility toward Muslims part of the reason you left?
There was no direct causation. As I described to you earlier, I was kind of was burnt out at that stage. That comment kind of falls into the category of maddening self-inflicted wounds and it doesn’t make you terribly excited to get up to go to the office in the morning.
In Benjamin Wallace-Wells’s New York magazine profile on Peretz, Wallace-Wells notes that you are one of the four people Peretz believes really understands what is at stake in Israel. Is that accurate and how do your views differ from Peretz’s?
I’m a big believer in the two-state solution, and I think that Israel made a big mistake by putting the Palestinian question on the permanent back-burner. There’s kind of a moral cost to the occupation that I think the country needs to address. The unilateral evacuation of the Gaza, while posing lots of problems for both the Israelis and Palestinians, was totally a worthwhile maneuver on the Israeli’s part. But like Marty, I have a deep moral, sentimental, familial attachment to the state of Israel. I have cousins who live there and so I started visiting the country as a kid. I’m attached in that way. Israel commits a lot of unforced errors, but generally, in the broader world, there’s a lack of goodwill toward the country that I find deeply disturbing.
We wanted to ask about some of the dark spots on The New Republic‘s history. The magazine has had some unfortunate runs-in with plagiarists such as Ruth Shalit (under Andrew Sullivan) and fabricators like Stephen Glass (under Chuck Lane) or some drama related to Scott Thomas Beauchamp (under you). What would you have done differently in the case of Glass to prevent his work from making it to print? Was there a policy or procedure that could have prevented his stories from getting past the fact-checkers and editors?
Let me just talk about the Scott Beauchamp thing, which is kind of like my own incident. We got a little bit hosed in that whole controversy. We took this controversy seriously on journalistic grounds, yet the right wing media was ginning up a controversy. The fact that our articles received so much scrutiny and attention from the right wing press is fairly disgraceful because whatever journalistic sins were committed were relatively minor. The sins that were committed by Beauchamp’s unit, which includes a commander being found guilty by the U.S. military of committing war crimes, guilty of murdering innocent Iraqis, are well established. The fact that there hasn’t been similar attention paid to this more substantive issue and too much attention paid to whether or not this guy added relatively minor literary embellishments in his story is outrageous.
Any thoughts on the Stephen Glass incident?
Look, the guy was a pathological liar. He understood the seams in the fact-checking system and the way people thought about editing narrative and he very cunningly exploited them. I think he should have been caught a lot earlier in retrospect, but his maneuvering seemed to be awfully clever. It shouldn’t have happened with the consistency that he was able to pull it off. I mean at a certain point it seemed like there were alarm bells that should have been tripped. But I wasn’t there, so I only know the Hollywood version of the story. But it seems, in retrospect, he should have been stopped much earlier.
The problem may have been that he was friends with the fact-checkers, which compromised the copy. Shouldn’t Research and Editorial keep a cool distance from one another? What do you think?
My sense was that he actually invented the fact-checking system.
In Rodrick’s Times piece, he mentions that Glass, who passed the bar in New York and California, couldn’t get licensed to practice law in California, so Peretz flew out to California to defend Glass.
I think Marty may have developed a personal relationship with Stephen Glass. Marty can be a very generous person and I think that generosity was at play there. I wouldn’t defend Glass because I find the damage he inflicted on the institution to be so severe in terms of costing the magazine credibility. I would find it very hard to forgive him. Because of the movie and the scandal, in the public’s mind, Glass became synonymous with the magazine. You can’t do much worse than Stephen Glass in terms of damaging the credibility of an institution.
Looking forward, what can we expect from the new iteration of The New Republic?
We’re going to re-launch the magazine and website by the end of the year or early next year. Right now, we’re in the early phases of thinking that through and thinking through how to best present long-form journalism in digital media and how to create a kind of platonic ideal of the reading experience.
[Note: On January, 28, 2013, the New Republic's magazine and website, relaunched.]
We heard you’re opening an office in NYC and doubling your staff. Are there any rising journalism stars out there that you’re looking to recruit? Anyone you’ve got your eye on?
We’ve hired a bunch of people I’m pretty psyched about. We hired Noreen Malone from New York magazine, Julia Ioffe from The New Yorker, Marc Tracy from Tablet, Lydia DePillis from the Washington City Paper. They’re all people who are kind of at the beginning of their careers, who’ve had a little bit of experience, but are on the cusp of big-time breakthroughs.
So you’ve got your full team in place?
There’s probably a little bit more hiring we need to do.
Are there any magazines out there that reflect what you’re striving for in The New Republic?
There are lots of magazines that I admire. I admire Adam Moss as the greatest magazine technician of the era. Anything that Adam Moss touches is…I was actually looking back at some of The New York Times Magazines he edited, which have an amazing alchemy of serious and fun that I hugely admire. And I feel like the pendulum is swinging and that when you look at all the sites that are devoted to substantial journalism–to long form journalism–you’ve just go to feel a glimmer of optimism about where people’s reading habits are pointing.