A lot of you told us you liked the way our conversation with Ta-Nehisi Coates worked. You liked the set-up, how we used our time with him, and the follow-up coverage. So, over the next few issues of The Masthead, we’re going to try something similar with Franklin Foer, the author of The Atlantic’s March cover story on Paul Manafort.
Frank will have a session with us on Wednesday, Feb. 7, at 1:00 p.m. EST (details to follow). We’ll use that time to open the door to the world of ideas he’s explored in his writing career, from political corruption, to tech monopolies, to soccer and globalization. In advance of that session, we want to solicit your questions about Frank’s recent work and expertise. If you’re not familiar with Frank Foer, today’s issue will give you a sense of the stories he’s been telling throughout his career. Dive into whatever parts of his portfolio interest you, and come back to us with what you want to know. And, as with Ta-Nehisi, we’ll give you the opportunity to extend and comment on one another’s questions before we sit down with Frank.
Paul Manafort Helped Create Washington As We Know It
It’s worth reading Frank’s deeply reported article to learn about the many twists and turns of Manafort’s life and career. But the Manafort story is really about something bigger. Frank writes:
We live in a world of smash-and-grab fortunes, amassed through political connections and outright theft. Paul Manafort, over the course of his career, was a great normalizer of corruption. The firm he created in the 1980s obliterated traditional concerns about conflicts of interest. It imported the ethos of the permanent campaign into lobbying and, therefore, into the construction of public policy.
Manafort in particular pioneered what has come to be known as the “double-breasted operation.”
Manafort’s was the first lobbying firm to also house political consultants. (Legally, the two practices were divided into different companies, but they shared the same founding partners and the same office space.) One venture would run campaigns; the other would turn around and lobby the politicians whom their colleagues had helped elect.
That innovation is a neat encapsulation of how American political influence can legally be bought and sold today.
Bonus material: What services exactly does a firm’s like Manafort’s offer? Listen to Frank describe Manafort’s sales pitch to Radio Atlantic’s Matt Thompson.
American Influence-Peddling Goes Global
Manafort’s work wasn’t just bipartisan, it was international. “The firm’s client base grew to include dictatorial governments in Nigeria, Kenya, Zaire, Equatorial Guinea, Saudi Arabia, and Somalia, among others,” Frank wrote. None of those governments were democracies at the time. “He offered this full service shop to dictators,” Frank said on Radio Atlantic.
Equally important, that work was done out in the open. Although American law requires lobbyists like Manafort to admit that they’re working for foreign powers—and the current indictment against him alleges he failed to do even that—doing a dictator’s dirty work is not itself illegal.
Bonus material: Manafort’s firm was a primary subject of scorn in a 1992 report by the Center for Public Integrity called “The Torturers’ Lobby.” Read it here.
One Man Can Damage the World
A theme of Frank’s writing—one not limited to Manafort—is that norms and institutions decay not by accident but when they come under assault from people and corporations pursuing their own interests. In the 1980s, Frank explained, “Business had to actually be persuaded that it was in their interest to ramp up in Washington.” In other words, Washington is filled with lobbyists because people like Manafort convinced them lobbying was profitable.
Frank takes up this theme in his book World Without Mind: The Existential Threat of Big Tech. By now, media companies’ struggles to convince readers to pay for journalism just feel like part of the furniture of our era. But writing didn’t become cheap by accident. The big tech firms, particularly Google, Facebook, and Amazon, set out to devalue knowledge, Frank argues.
According to [a] strain of conventional wisdom, it was inevitable that the price of knowledge would evaporate in the presence of the Internet. That narrative casts these companies as innocent bystanders, when, in fact, they were active, brutal accomplices. To build their empires, they targeted the weak economic underpinnings of knowledge and they knocked them right out.
Like Washington’s corruption crisis, journalism’s crisis stems in part from the business decisions made by a few individuals motivated by their own self-interest.
Bonus material: Individuals can make the right choices, too. In a recent esay, Frank gives some grudging credit to Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg for the recent changes Facebook made to its news feed. Despite having done considerable damage in the past, this time, Zuckerberg has “made a decision that might adversely impact his revenue for the sake of the common good.”
Big Tech Is a Big Threat
The massive technology companies are a new kind of monopoly, Frank argues. America has seen monopolies rise and fall before, but Silicon Valley is qualitatively different. “More than any previous coterie of corporations, the tech monopolies aspire to mold humanity into their desired image of it,” he writes in World Without Mind.
Tech firms’ control of information makes the the new gatekeepers—like old-fashioned newspaper editors were, but on a much bigger scale. But their overwhelming control of personal data poses a new danger, Frank writes:
When it comes to the most central tenet of individualism—free will—the tech companies have a different way. They hope to automate the choices, both large and small, we make as we float through the day. It’s their algorithms that suggest the news we read, the goods we buy, the paths we travel, the friends we invite into our circles.
Bonus material: Frank explains the danger of conformity in detail in a Washington Post article.
New Monopolies Require New Solutions
Individuals are blinded to the danger posed by big tech in part because, unlike the monopolies of old, tech companies are useful to individual consumers. “If you look at these companies and you're just judging them on the basis of price, they're awesome,” Frank said recently. Most people, after all, pay nothing directly to Google or Facebook. But their control over our personal data makes them even more threatening than the monopolies of the 20th century.
Frank’s solution is to break up the monopolies, writing in World Without Mind: “The health of our democracy demands that we consider treating Facebook, Google, and Amazon with the same firm hand that led government to wage war on AT&T, IBM, and Microsoft—even dismembering them into smaller companies if circumstances (and the law) demand a forceful response.” Anti-trust, he says, is a grand American tradition reaching back to the Founding Fathers.
Bonus material: Frank suggests we return to the anti-monopoly philosophy of former Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, which he explains in an interview with Nicholas Thompson of Wired.
In the Meantime, Journalism Is in Crisis
Objective journalism is upheld by a set of norms followed by a relatively small set of individuals in professional newsrooms. “Journalism likes to pose as a pillar of the Republic, which it may be, but it’s a newly planted pillar and and not so firmly embedded in the soil,” Frank writes in World Without Mind. The entanglement of tech and journalism—and tech’s assault on the economic value of knowledge—has eroded those not-so-firmly embedded norms.
Fixing that will require rewiring the economy of journalism. He elaborated in an interview with Nieman Lab:
Everybody should have access to media. The house of our democracy depends on it. I also think everybody should pay for media, just as everybody pays for food. Everybody needs food to survive, yet we don’t give away food for free. We create an economy that subsidizes it.
The idea that information wants to be free is, in other words, hogwash.
Bonus material: Frank has personal experience with what happens when tech and journalism collide. After Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes bought the New Republic, he hired Frank for an ill-fated run as editor. He wrote about his experience in “When Silicon Valley Took Over Journalism.”
Overtime: How Soccer Explains the World
These are just a few of the subjects Frank has written about. Another that will be relevant in a year in which Russia hosts the World Cup (without the American men’s team!) is soccer. Frank’s 2004 book argued that soccer is an essential tool to understand the forces that have shaped the modern world. He told The Atlantic that year, “There's no more globalized phenomenon in the world than the game of soccer, there are few better ways of studying how globalization will shake out than by looking at the game.”
The book arguesd that soccer shows how national identity manages to maintain strong attachments in a globalized world. Frank explained in 2004:
Take the Barcelona soccer club. By all accounts, the Catalans should have no use for their self-identity as Catalans. They're very prosperous members of the Spanish nation. Their history is preserved and protected and under no threat. Yet they still demonstrate this essential human impulse to identify with the group. It's evidenced by their enthusiasm for the soccer club FC Barcelona, which is a great symbol of the Catalan nation.
That analysis was prescient; more than a decade later, Catalonia is now locked in a power struggle with Spain over its degree of independence.
Bonus material: Six years after the publication of Frank’s book, Michael Agovino meditated on it in an essay on what soccer means for the culture wars.
Today’s Wrap Up
Question of the day: What are your questions for Frank Foer? If you’re familiar with his back catalogue, feel free to dive into issues I didn’t get into today (like his famous family!). We’ve set up a Google Doc where you can write your questions and comments. Or you can reply to this email.
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What’s coming: Next week, we’ll dive into your questions for Frank.
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