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.