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After 13 years in the District, Betsy Rothstein quietly quit her job as a features editor and gossip columnist of The Hill newspaper in the middle of 2009 and undertook a sabbatical of sorts—a “detox” she calls it, though not in the celebrity rehab sense—to Portland, Ore., where friends from her post-college days in Denver had been begging her for years to move. She hung out in coffee shops and did a lot of yoga, cultivating a sense of inner peace that would come in quite handy later on in this story. And she channeled her outsider’s perspective into the odd freelance pitch.
“You know how Portland is kind of… hippie, right, and people grow their hair out longer there, and facial hair?” she says quietly. “Well, I really wasn’t used to that. I felt like I was seeing Jesus everywhere I went.” Sharing the observation with an editor at the local newspaper Willamette Week, the petite reporter was quickly dispatched on a mission to find enough local men who fit the description to compile a “12 Jesuses” cover story pegged to the Christmas holidays.
But 12 is a rather large number in the hack trend story business. Three candidates fell through after exhibiting conspicuously un-Christlike behavior. Some days sorely tested her resilience. “Sometimes I would wake up in the morning and tell myself, ‘OK, today is the day I am going to meet Him,’” she says. “But I would never meet any Jesuses on those days. It was only the days that I forgot about Jesus, or got distracted by something else, that I would find Him.” She ultimately fulfilled her quota. And then, as inconspicuously as she’d arrived, she flew away.
By the time the story ran two days before Christmas 2009, she was back in D.C., with a new gig editing the gossip blog Fishbowl DC, the five-year old Washington outlet of the New York-based press navel-gazer website MediaBistro. She embarked upon the mission with the same editorial philosophy that had brought “12 Jesuses” to fruition: Show up. Write what you see. Don’t force trends that aren’t there. And pay attention to the hair.
“Hair is really important,” Rothstein muses with a half-giggle. In the year since she took the helm the word “hair” has appeared 78 times on Fishbowl DC. During that time, Rothstein has become perhaps the most improbably controversial figure in the D.C. media.
“She is evil,” Jim Newell, the Gawker politics blogger, informed me via IM a few months before I moved here. Around the same time Alex Pareene, another former colleague and friend now at Salon, wrote a post calling her a “hack” known for “toiling in near-obscurity” authoring “inexplicably nasty, personal items about other D.C. journalists” (whom she “seemingly”—albeit sadly mistakenly—”considered her competition”). In an e-mail, Huffington Post’s Jason Linkins dubbed Rothstein “the platonic ideal of a complete fucking moron”; on Twitter he has referred to the “Fishbowl fuck” as a “scumbag” who should “DIAF” (die in a fire).
One can cull the opinions of political bloggers to yield similarly venomous indictments about almost anyone. But there is something exceptional about the Rothstein jihadists. For one, the men I have just quoted are all personal friends (and in two cases, former co-workers) who possess what I feel to be near-irrefutable judgment. More curiously, all were aware before I was that my editors were planning a profile of Rothstein. As was Chris Hayes of The Nation, an acquaintance of mine and frequent subject of Rothstein’s blog posts who, like Linkins, e-mailed before I had made a single phone call on the piece to gleefully inform me that “a little birdie” had informed them of my latest assignment. “As a sustained performance art project that investigates the depthless absurdity of the media’s recursive fascination with itself, it is without peer,” Hayes wrote, unprompted, about Fishbowl.
Another local journalist I met later on in the process also volunteered that he had spoken extensively with one of my editors about the necessity of a proper critique of Rothstein’s tenure at the blog; he didn’t want to be quoted by name on grounds that the blog had gotten too “toxic” under her leadership. When pressed to elaborate on his grievances, however, he conceded he barely read Fishbowl anymore, which was somewhat demoralizing.
Could putting people like Howard Fineman on “hair watch” have really engendered such hatred? Well, not completely. Critics also carp about her frequent copy editing errors and awkward sentence structure, along with her infuriating inability to “break news.” But rather paradoxically, it was the one instance in which Rothstein did actually break big-time D.C. media news—the tale of “objective” reporter David Weigel’s anti-right wing rants on the invitation-only Journolist Google group—that galvanized the vicious anti-Betsy consensus.
“You would have thought she was the agent of the Tea Party or something,” says her part time co-editor Matt Dornic. “And it’s the all the class clowns, the ironic blogger types who aren’t supposed to take anything seriously, who really can’t stand her.” Part of this, he thinks, is that “she’s just like so everything that’s not D.C., and yet she’s nestled in the middle of it. They’re like, ‘Why can’t you just leave Ed Henry’s blazer alone?’ And they don’t realize that there’s nothing malicious about it, because they don’t know Betsy, and they don’t know Betsy because she is the least self-promotional person in D.C.”
But the criticisms are telling: Maybe Rothstein’s prose can be so doltish because the world she covers is so doltish. Dig into a year’s worth of Fishbowl content and the city’s ambient Betsy-bashing may well start to come off as case of projected self-loathing. It turns out the only thing more absurd than the media’s recursive fascination with itself is the media’s reaction to what that fascination looks like when chronicled on a blog.
Viewed through the lens of Fishbowl, 2010 was an indisputably entertaining year. Michelle and Barack Obama appeared on the cover of the year’s inaugural issue of People magazine, but only in a box in the right-hand column; the main cover story was about Heidi Montag. An abortive Christmas terror attack occasioned Charles Krauthammer’s repeated use of the word “underpants” on Fox News. A former Cosmo model was elected senator from Massachusetts. Former Ilinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, fresh off Dancing with the Stars, entered Celebrity Apprentice, which he promoted via an Esquire interview that included a since-retracted comment about his being “blacker than Obama.” Meghan McCain tweeted prodigiously about her grievances with D.C. men. John McCain tweeted @ the Jersey Shore character Sn00ki promising her he’d “never tax your tanning bed!”
Fishbowl’s first big “blogtroversy” of the year came when Kim Kardashian—who had been a regular on the site since Rothstein noticed Andrea Mitchell getting testy whenever Chuck Todd brought her up during Super Bowl coverage—was invited to the White House Correspondents Dinner as the guest of Fox anchor Greta Van Susteren. Rothstein wrote a brief, anonymously-sourced dispatch from the dinner titled “Journos like Big Butts.” Van Susteren responded with a furious post on her Greta Wire blog lamenting Fishbowl’s having been “demeaning to women.” Rothstein cooly followed up via a post, illustrated with Kardashian’s Playboy cover, that chronicled Kardashian’s history of ass-capitalization endeavors. “Rothstein won this round,” the next Greta Wire post conceded.
And that was 2010: a year in which statesmanship became so fully integrated into the rest of reality stardom that Michaele Salahi appears in hindsight almost like a Rosa Parks figure. But there wasn’t much of a movement to preempt the dubious cross-breeding, possibly because the media elite were all too busy on Twitter. If future historians will look to reality television as the conclusive chronicle and embodiment of the empire’s cultural elevation of the mundane, the tweet was the medium through which this Church of the Quotidian conquered the nation’s capital. And Fishbowl was there to chronicle the tweets.
For Rothstein, this was all something of a mixed blessing. For years, her reportorial eye for the banal represented a competitive advantage. “Not a lot of reporters can show up in a room where a senator is being grilled about some nuance of… Medicare reimbursement, and ask him how he got that bump on his head,” says Bob Cusack, her old editor at The Hill, where she worked from 1998 to 2009. “But that’s Betsy.” She was known for standing in the hallway of the Rayburn House Office Building and asking passing legislators a “question of the week.” Example: “Which ‘Sex & the City’ character most appeals to you?” (Rothstein asked 20 separate representatives this question in 2008, but only Tom Tancredo answered “Samantha.”)
Twitter unleashed a torrent of this sort of banal personal revelations about just about everyone. And the media figures comprising Rothstein’s new Fishbowl DC beat were the most relentless tweeters of all. Merely reading the prodigious feeds of the 685 producers, reporters, editors and nebulously media-related self-promoters Fishbowl DC “follows” could almost be a full-time job. In fact for Rothstein, who had never been entrenched in any local media clique, Twitter practically did become a full-time job; on any given day, Twitter content and Facebook updates provide a good chunk of Fishbowl’s posts. For a relative outsider, there was no more objective way of gleaning what media types cared about and who their celebrities were. If these items are sometimes a little weird, well, so are Twitter and Facebook updates, especially the ones written by people you don’t really know. There’s no real context in all those random noisy tweets—which, in the aggregate, is the actual context of our time.
But even in such a landscape, the human brain is wired to suss out patterns and seize on important figures and significant trends. And in the media world as Rothstein chronicles it, there is one great force that shows up again and again: the ubiquitous Politico. The Arlington-based media empire with its obsessive coverage of politics and politicians is, one can glean near-instantly from a quick glance at Fishbowl, the subject of ever-intensifying obsession to Rothstein and the rest of Washington’s media culture. As with Twitter, merely reading Politico was a monumental task: The site famously filed 84 separate dispatches from the White House Correspondents Dinner alone. And then there were the incessant Twitter streams of workaholic staffers like former Fishbowl DC editor Patrick Gavin, who Rothstein mocked in January for tweeting multiple times from his honeymoon in Hawaii. Not to mention the relentless flow of news about Politico, announced in vividly worded internal memos obtained (or rather, leaked so they could be publicized) and flaunted by Fishbowl DC even when, as in the case of a March 4 memo, the underlying news event was nothing more noteworthy than another week of “ass-kicking,” “enterprising,” “indispensable,” and “unforgettable” coverage. Sample line: “We have been accused of hyperbole once or twice, but we can safely declare: we have pulled it off.”
“I loved that memo,” Rothstein says.
Politico was also the unnamed driver of most of the other internal memos Fishbowl obtained in 2010. The memos—dutifully, excitedly republished by Rothstein—show well near every other news organization in town rolling out some new initiative designed to grab a bit of the Allbritton site’s manic magic. Naturally, the competition extends to internal memo-writing itself: After Rothstein mocked CQ-Roll Call for sending out the “world’s second most boring internal memo” about some staff changes in April, editorial director Mike Mills disseminated a more exclamatory memo the following month, in praise of the newsroom’s efforts the evening prior. “NOBODY has what we have in CQ today, on CQ.com, or in our specialty publications this morning.” When National Journal announced its hiring of Ron Brownstein to helm its new project, the official press release quoted owner David Bradley saying Brownstein was “smarter than the human species was meant to be.”
And so, as the entirety of the local media landscape has been Politico-ized, so has media gossip, as represented by Rothstein, with her running tally of how many tweets Howard Kurtz posts each week to promote his show. There’s plenty to dislike about all this: The credulousness, the celebrification, the treatment of spin as fact (all those internal memos!), the tin ears. But considering how much of the hatred of Rothstein’s journalism coverage comes from folks who devote the same approach to covering people with real power, it all seems a little silly.
Betsy Rothstein is 40, but looks younger. She a native of Akron, Ohio, a resident of Adams Morgan, and a graduate of Choate, Union College, and Northwestern’s Medill Graduate School of Journalism. She’s also an intensely private person from whom it is exceedingly difficult to extract basic Facebook-level non-professional details. “It was always a sort of joke to ask Betsy, ‘hey, what are you doing this weekend?’ because you would never get an answer, and no one ever knew,” says Cusack. “I certainly never knew if she was dating anyone or anything like that,” agrees Terence Shepherd, another former boss from her pre-D.C. career as a business reporter at The Boca News in Boca Raton, Fla., who associates her degree of discretion with her acute powers of observation about everyone else. “She was so observant it could be kind of scary to be her boss,” says Shepherd, adding that he fell into a sort of funk when she left the newspaper in late 1996 to work for Democratic U.S. Rep. Bob Wexler, whose election to Congress she had covered for the newspaper.
Wexler remembers his old press secretary as “energetic and idealistic” as well as “a wonderful press secretary.” But Rothstein says she knew “three days in” that she had made the wrong decision. One of her first tasks was responding to a flurry of letters from pro-lifers in her district; most came with the requisite graphic bloody fetus photo brochures, but others came with bouquets of red roses. “And I thought, what an interesting story, are other congressmen getting red roses too? Who started that?” she remembers. “But I did not know how to respond to them.” By the next campaign season she had left the Hill for The Hill, where she worked for a decade until leaving abruptly for (highly un-salacious) reasons about which she did not want to elaborate on the record. Before I learned most of this I gleaned that, despite the Adams Morgan residency, she spends many days blogging from a coffee shop in Bloomingdale. When I asked if she had a boyfriend in that neighborhood, it caused a mild freakout. Eventually Rothstein explained that she liked the coffee shop, Big Bear, because it reminded her of Portland.
This elusiveness only serves to reenforce Rothstein’s “agenda vacuum,” the unexplained motivations behind her posts that rankle her critics the most. “At some point she decides Weigel is like, the most fascinating person in the universe,” HuffPo’s Linkins remembers. Not a week and a half later, Weigel was out of a job.
The way Rothstein explains it, Weigel officially became what she calls a “character in the play” in the middle of June, when two small fates that probably wouldn’t have seemed consequential on their own happened to befall the 29-year-old journalist, then a political blogger for The Washington Post. First, he dashed off a Monday morning blog post about a YouTube video that looked primed to become the “conservative meme of the week.” In the video, Democratic Rep. Bob Etheridge of North Carolina manhandles an unidentified conservative activist attempting to ambush-videotape him. Weigel described Etheridge as having “grabbed” the young man “in a hug,” instantly prompting a jeering Drudge link—“WASH POST: NOT AN ASSAULT, A ‘HUG’”—and attendant hate mail. Venting his frustration on Twitter, Weigel scoffed that some hate-mailers misspelled his name. Rothstein detailed the brief saga in a straight post, adding no commentary other than a photo of a polar bear hugging a wolf.
And that might have been that, but for a lengthy Examiner gossip item the next day about Weigel’s “wild and crazy dancing style” at Atlantic blogger Megan McArdle’s recent wedding. It was mostly the quotes: Weigel justified dancing alone by referring to the wedding as a “safe space,” claiming that “a few friends of the XX persuasion” had “eventually” danced with him. “I just thought the whole thing was so funny,” Rothstein says. Weigel was less amused, encouraging his Twitter followers to “block” the Examiner gossip. Rothstein wrote this up, too, reminding readers of Weigel’s strange earlier usage of “hug.” She soon received an e-mail from Weigel with a list of dictionary definitions for the word hug. “He was playing along,” Rothstein says. Weigel had reached official “Fishbowl celebrity” status.
The following Monday Rothstein got a tip from a reader who linked to an online news show that featured Weigel holding forth with two journalists of the XX persuasion. According to the tipster, the clip demonstrated that Weigel was checking out one of their chests. Rothstein wasn’t so sure. “I basically thought it was just Weigel being Weigel,” she says. But she posted the video anyway, directing readers to his hand gestures instead of his eyes. It was after this last (semi-gratuitous) post that a new tipster e-mailed Rothstein to gauge Fishbowl’s interest in a some uncensored Weigel e-mails he/she claimed to have. By Wednesday, Fishbowl had its biggest scoop of the year. And Rothstein had more enemies than she’d made in her whole career.
Before the tip, Rothstein had been vaguely aware of Weigel’s membership in what she terms the league of “boy band” bloggers, a clique of born-in-the-eighties wonks including Spencer Ackerman, Ezra Klein, and Matthew Yglesias. Weigel’s membership dates back to late 2008, when he defected from the libertarian magazine Reason and took a job at The Washington Independent, a left-leaning online journal specializing in the sort of thoroughly reported policy journalism that has died with the newspapers that once nurtured it amidst the so-called Politico-ization of everything else. (Nine months later, the Independent is also dead.) Along with the job leap, Weigel started posting to the liberal networking Google group Journolist, maintained by the boy band’s frontman, Post blogger Ezra Klein.
As with most things boy band, Rothstein was aware of Journolist but not enough of a wonk to care. She did not know it was the obsession of some on the right, namely Tucker Carlson, whose new Daily Caller website had been preparing a series on the “left-wing conspiracy.” She just knew the e-mails her source shared with her seemed newsworthy: In them, Weigel responds to items like Hug-gate and the wedding dance in typically over-the-top fashion. And Rothstein definitely knew Weigel’s most incendiary comment—”This would be a vastly better world to live in if Matt Drudge decided to handle his emotional problems more responsibly, and set himself on fire”—was highly unlikely to escape Drudge’s attention, which, in turn, would bring Fishbowl traffic.
After corroborating the e-mails’ authenticity with Weigel in a brief phone conversation, she posted some excerpts on Fishbowl. And within minutes, the Drudge hits started barreling in. The next 36 hours were a bit of a blur. “I had no idea that I had just opened this can of worms,” she says.
If she’d known what she knows now, she says, she would have marshaled every Daily Caller source and hanger-on she knew to figure out why they’d been sitting on the e-mails so long and who their sources were. The next morning, lest Rothstein take all the air out of their own scoop, the Daily Caller posted a second stash of Weigel’s e-mails, also taking aim at the far right and the media that covers them. By noon, he had resigned from the Post. And dozens of progressive bloggers were rallying to the libertarian’s defense.
The real weirdness came that evening, at a party hosted by The Huffington Post to fête its new daily newsletter HuffPo Hill. Weigel was there with a Post buddy, but he was talking on his cell phone the whole time. A longtime acquaintance of Rothstein’s from her days at The Hill approached her with an odd proposition. “I think I can convince Weigel to forgive you,” he promised, as if she had done something wrong; she politely demurred. Later someone else “dared” her to approach Weigel, reasoning that it would make for a great post.
“I never should have done that,” Rothstein says now. When she tried to introduce herself, “it was ice.” (“I just said, ‘I’m not talking to you,’” is how Weigel recalls it.) Back at home, Keith Olbermann was pronouncing her “worst person in the world,” a designation she shared with Tucker Carlson. “I had to form a really thick skin,” Rothstein says.
“I t’s not rocket science why she started taking an interest in me,” Weigel tells me in late October over beers at The Big Hunt. “I had [thousands of] Twitter followers. I had a big audience already. When you’re running something like Fishbowl, it’s your job to figure out who the ‘cool kids’ are. If you aren’t one of them, you write about them.”
This statement is striking for many reasons, most conspicuously for the fact that Weigel is to the ’80s movie definition of “cool kid” about what Etheridge’s chokehold was to a “hug.” This is in large part the source of his appeal: He’s a lovable dork who makes no apologies for it. (He later told Rothstein in an interview that he spent much of his high school days playing Final Fantasy.) This is, of course, why Rothstein found herself drawn to him. But it is true that such people truly are the “cool kids” of this town, which points to the less endearing truth of Weigel’s comment: That the backlash against Rothstein is to a large extent the rallying of D.C.’s wonky media “cool kids” around one of its foremost boy-band bloggers.
I imagine most of the cool kids would strenuously dispute this depiction of events, in keeping with their debate team captain pedigrees. Yet two days after Weigel resigned he wrote a mea culpa of sorts explaining that he had been “dazzled” by his admittance into the exclusive Journolist, and that he wrote his more insulting screeds against conservatives in a shameless bid to get liberals to like and accept them by telling them what they wanted to hear.
Rothstein doesn’t quite buy that explanation; she watched all his TV appearances closely and says she thinks Weigel was “tortured” by the hate mail in the way of someone who had been “in the closet” and needed to come out. And given that Weigel chose Andrew Breitbart’s Big Government as the outlet on which to confess his deep-seated need to be liked by the cool kids, he could simply have been attempting to re-ingratiate himself with the cool crowd about to sweep Congress. Whatever the case, he found a new gig at MSNBC a week after his Breitbart essay and a home for his blog at Slate a month after that. “I was watching him on Twitter one night at like 3 a.m. getting into it with somebody, and at one point, someone asks if he’s going to bed ever, and he tweets, ‘I will NEVER STOP,’ in all caps,” Rothstein says. “He’s a typical D.C. workaholic.”
But there is more to it than that: by his own admission, Weigel’s addiction is also to being liked, or at least, paid attention to. It’s a trait Rothstein’s characters seem to share, by the looks of their Twitter feeds. Weigel has tapped out more than 18,000 Tweets; Jake Tapper, another regular on Fishbowl, more than 24,000; Sarah Palin, by contrast, has produced 720 tweets, and Howard Kurtz a mere 3,914.
Take a close look and you’ll see that Rothstein mostly fixates on media figures who are either famous or act as if they are. The characters in her play are low-hanging fruit. There’s a case to be made that much of what Rothstein does could probably be programmed into a moderately sophisticated algorithm. Certainly you could say that of her daily “soup of the day” post, in which she essentially copies and pastes MSNBC’s daily feature on which soup the White House is serving that day. But if one of our national news outlets is devoting labor to collecting this bit of pointless information every single day, it’s arguably ideal fodder for the media blog.
A common trait of early gossip blogs was that they were often smarter than they had to be. Fishbowl DC is adamantly not. But these days, this trait is absent not only from most of the blogosphere but from nearly all of the content generated by anyone who might merit gossip. Many within the D.C. media might fancy themselves immune from the dumbed down Politico-ization of everything, but if they regularly appear on Twitter and cable news shows they are lying to themselves.
In the end, Rothstein’s biggest failing isn’t the dumb errors that pop up on her site. It’s not the misreadings that critics whack her for. It’s that she is isn’t particularly snarky or dismissive about any of the shallow information she aggregates. She mostly just reports it. Which, in Washington, actually means she does what most of the folks she covers are also doing.