BELTWAY FOLKWAYS NOVEMBER 7, 2013
One of Washington’s most enduring mysteries deepened Thursday, when Politico reported that former FishbowlDC editor Betsy Rothstein would join The Daily Caller as a blogger. The news interrupted a week of schadenfreude on the part of Rothstein’s detractors, who had exulted in the abrupt end of her tenure at the media gossip site FishbowlDC—we are asked to believe it was a resignation—after a local publicist sued her for libel.
Along the way, the subject of conversation among the local journalism world’s many Rothstein obsessives had evolved from “How is Betsy still employed?” to “Who would hire Betsy after everything she’s done?” Rothstein’s new employer, after all, had just hired a writer who wrote four posts about the size of an unknown Washington Post video host’s breasts.
Last week’s celebratory messages about her departure and Thursday’s befuddlement over her hiring, however, both underscore the same thing: The outsized place Rothstein has carved for herself in the capital’s media ecosystem since she joined Fishbowl in 2009. No reporter in D.C., not even Robert Costa during the shutdown, has occupied so much of local reporters’ mental real estate.
Quite a feat for a solo blogger—especially one whose targets, such as they are, often tend to be even more obscure than she is. But the telling thing about Rothstein’s four-year voyage through digital Washington is that, in a city full of journalists eager to explain Washington, she has stubbornly refused to be explicable, and thus made it hard to derive any conclusions about the state of the nation based on her totemic appeal to its Beltway-based media.
FishbowlDC might legitimately break local media news. It might run a perfectly boring party report, or infuriate people nationwide with an “investigation” of why “Females on Campaign Trail Go For Sexpot Look,” or run pictures of “big butts” seen out and about. Or it could embark on a yearlong campaign against a little-known publicist for no apparent reason. You just never knew.
Which hasn’t stopped anyone from trying to sense a greater purpose in Rothstein’s work.
Rothstein’s defenders include New York Times reporter Mark Leibovich, the reigning king of explaining What Washington Means, who sees her as a fearless outsider.
"Among us DEEPLY SERIOUS AND RESPONSIBLE DC journalists, it's easy to snicker—and many people do, largely because they are so above-it-all and Betsy is not ‘credentialed’ like they are (or, did I mention, as DEEPLY SERIOUS AND RESPONSIBLE),” Leibovich writes in an email. “And yet they pretty much always read her, usually eagerly.” Rothstein, Leibovich adds, “is also rare among D.C. journalists in that she seems to absolutely not care about pissing people off and being disrespectful. And that makes her a guilty pleasure in a world that tends to do guilty a lot better than it does pleasure.”
A few years earlier, a Washington City Paper profile had suggested that the dumbness of Rothstein’s work merely exposes the dumbness of her beat. “Maybe Rothstein’s prose can be so doltish because the world she covers is so doltish,” Moe Tkacik wrote in a 2010 profile of Rothstein that proposed “the city’s ambient Betsy-bashing may well start to come off as case of projected self-loathing.”
“There's no story she'd shy from—a great attribute for a gossip columnist,” U.S. News and World Report gossip columnist Nikki Schwab tells me in an email. “The only problem is how often she got things wrong.”
Rothstein’s defenders give Washington too much credit. She may have been fearless, but it never translated into any Walter Winchell-like power to make or break careers or otherwise expose the capital’s hypocrisies. Schwab’s qualified admiration notwithstanding, Rothstein’s ability to get things wrong—which was never limited to merely misspelling names—was draw, not drawback. It was her ability to completely misread what journalists revealed in public that mystified and delighted her past (and presumably future) readers.
There was the time she suggested Slate's Matt Yglesias might be running for office because he had a custom link-shortener. The time she ran an item about Yglesias with a photo of Spencer Ackerman instead and told someone who pointed out the error to “relax.” The time she misunderstood Nicholas Jackson’s explanation of his new site as “TBD” to mean he wanted to re-create the ill-fated local Washington-area news startup of the same name.
Or just last month, the time she reported that Slate contributor Amanda Hess, who left Washington several years ago and was never exactly one of those preening national-politics pundits that a modern-day Winchell might skewer, had threatened to kill someone. Rothstein wrote a post about a tweet Hess sent in reply to someone who’d read her story about the false intimacy of hugs. Rothstein reported the tweet said “Alex, if people start hugging me over this I am going to kill you.” In fact, it says, “Alex if people start hugging me over this I'm going to be very upset with you.”
Following an email exchange with Hess, Rothstein updated the post with a strangely worded “Clarification”: “We accidentally mistook her tweet but the previous page has been changed to reflect the truth.”
Hess, a longtime Rothstein target, tells me she still “got invested in debating [Rothstein’s] motivations and wondering what she was going to say next.” But she also acknowledged that to even enter that debate about motivations was a fool’s errand. Her work “was kind of a Horse_ebooks approach,” Hess says. “Sometimes I got the sense that she wasn't very good at even reading Twitter, much less extracting meaning or humor from it.”
Hess says she appreciated the way Rothstein’s corrections would often be “this too-long update speculating about how she may have misread the tweet, like it was a new development in the story.”
Rothstein’s method, to the extent you can discern one, was to turn certain individuals into microbeats, whether or not they had sought the attention. Such people would then become a “character in the play,” as Rothstein told Tkacik. At that point, nothing the person did was too minor for a Fishbowl item. Hence readers’ familiarity with Mike Riggs, a reporter for the Atlantic Cities vertical who used to work at The Daily Caller. For a time, Riggs was the subject of a Rothstein series called The Daily Baller that focused on his party-hearty lifestyle. “I felt she actually did pretty good by me in those early posts,” he says in an interview. Rothstein “Never implied that I was a bad person or bad at my job simply because I used drugs.”
He cut the cord, he says, after he traveled to New York to appear on the Fox News program “Red Eye.” Business Insider's Joe Weisenthal tweeted that Riggs had drunk more than him at dinner, and Rothstein wrote a post about the “incident” called “The Daily Baller Imbibes Pre-Fox News Hit.”
A Fox representative called Riggs’ boss, outraged, he said, and he didn’t appear again on the show for two years. Another Daily Caller writer sent Rothstein a joke email anonymously the next day, asking why she was “encouraging Riggs’s substance abuse.” She ran it. “I was so embarrassed,” Riggs says. “But I wasn’t mad at Betsy. I was an idiot, and her job was capturing idiocy.”
Previous FishbowlDC editors took a different approach to the beat. “When we started FishbowlDC in 2005, we meant it to be a place that mixed serious media analysis with fun gossip,” Washingtonian Editor and former Fishbowl blogger Garrett Graff writes in an email. “I hope that whomever inherits it returns FishbowlDC to thoughtful reporting; it's possible to have a lot of fun reporting on the Washington media, and be incisive doing it, without turning the blog over to vicious personal attacks.”
"Betsy brought her own unique voice and style to it and took it in a new direction,” Politico reporter Patrick Gavin, who joined the site later in 2005 and took it over the next year, writes me in another email. “There were things she did that I wouldn't have, but I'm sure she would say the same about me (I got accused by some of not being snarky enough, for instance.)”
Fishbowl’s owners declined to reveal the site’s traffic figures, or talk about Rothstein’s tenure at all for that matter, but a source there told me it was in the middle of the pack of its sites, smaller than its sites that cover TV, Facebook and the book industry but with pretty good impact.
Rothstein’s tenure “proved a real tru-ism of Washington that I think people will argue about forever,” Gavin continues: “You can get a ton of attention by walking with sharp elbows in a town that keeps them retracted, but those with blunted elbows obviously burn less bridges. I'm still not sure which is the right approach."
Rothstein appears to concur: In an interview with Gavin after she left the site, she said “I would describe my approach as ‘real’ and ‘truthful’—not things people in Washington handle too well.”
You can get a glimpse of Rothstein’s approach to truth-telling in Wendy Gordon’s complaint (“a work of art,” as Washington City Paper described it). For more than a year, and for no reason Rothstein ever offered, the publicist became a character in the play. FishbowlDC ran a weekly “Wendy Wednesday” feature that took photos from Gordon’s Facebook account and drew puerile conclusions from them: Among them that she had chlamydia, wanted to perform oral sex on a wax statue of D.C. Councilmember Marion Barry, and that she was “DTF and on the prowl."
“I was always hoping the libel suit would go to trial and that I got called as an expert witness,” Washington Post reporter Gene Weingarten writes in an email. “Had I testified, I would have said that in my opinion, Fishbowl DC was a parody of a scurrilous, irresponsible, lazy, slipshod gratuitously nasty gossip magazine—even though they themselves don't know they are a parody. Therefore, in my opinion, they could not and should not be held liable for any defamation since nothing they write could reasonably be taken seriously by a reasonable person. I would have urged judge and/or jury not to fall for the Intentional Fallacy; the fact that they themselves are actually mean-spirited, lazy and stupid has nothing to do with how their product is perceived. The perception is all that matters, and it can only be perceived as satire.”
On the occasions that Rothstein & Co. did land on truths, they tended to be of the most banal sort: That boring people in high-profile jobs take themselves too seriously.
It didn’t matter, because Rothstein had grasped one huge change: The Internet had forced a fundamental transformation of media gossip in Washington. Sure, you can cover Georgetown parties or red-carpet events, or even the White House Correspondents Dinner, but Washington’s media scene now exists mainly online. The “conversation” that the city’s elite once sought in exclusive salons now takes place day and night on Twitter. A writer didn’t even need to leave home.
When this is how the people you cover interact, you have to take meaning where you can find it. Or as often happened on FishbowlDC, invent it.
Rothstein’s ascendance to Tucker Carlson’s conservative news site follows a time-honored career path, sort of. The Washington Star’s “Ear” column in the ’70s was successful because “Washington was at heart a small, provincial, southern town,” former Star editor Jim Bellows wrote in his memoir The Last Editor. Its columnists Diana McLellan and Louise Lague found it “fun to treat reporters as if they were movie stars. … I trace a lot of today’s media self-importance to the unaccustomed attention we gave them,” he wrote.
Lague went on to People and InStyle. McLellan wrote books. Leibovich wrote a bestseller about what a moronic place the Washington inhabited by elites can be, and he’s still walks among them. If you want to know why so many D.C. reporters obsessed over Rothstein, it wasn’t because of anything especially particular to the job, except maybe that in an industry full of people climbing professional ladders, she seemed to go to such inexplicable lengths to torpedo any hope of a future career.
Now even that calculation, like so many other attempts to outsmart Rothstein, has proved to be the wrong one. (Mediabistro announced Monday it had hired a comedian to replace her—the bloodline is strong.)
People hated showing up in FishbowlDC, but rarely because she was exposing them or even really understanding what they did. More often, if you appeared in Fishbowl, it was because Rothstein was doing something shitty like trying (unsuccessfully) to keep you from getting a job.
For all her bilious writing, Rothstein collected one notable pelt—that of Dave Weigel, a character in the play who in 2010 resigned from his job covering conservatives for the Washington Post after Rothstein published imprudent emails he posted on a Listserv. He quickly became a prominent political reporter for Slate, which is owned by the Washington Post Company. (Weigel says it's incorrect to credit Rothstein; Jonathan Strong, who published more emails in the Daily Caller after Rothstein's piece, deserves the credit for his pelt.)
“At least for me and everyone I knew, reading her was never, ever about any actual story or D.C. journo she wrote about,” Hess said. “It was always about her. I don't remember ever being like, ‘Did you see that thing Betsy posted? Crazy story, right?’ It was always, ‘What a crazy way to write about a thing that is actually not even a story.’”