Betsy Rothstein's Fishbowl D.C. is the Gossip Column the Beltway Media Deserves Sure, some people hate her. But there's a good chance they hate themselves, too.

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Photo by Darrow Montgomery

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.

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“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.

Illustration by Brooke Hatfield

Our Readers Say

She's cute and smart. A few years older than I but I'd still love to get a drink with her.
Sadly, the Fishtank site has nosedived horribly during 2009 and 2010--horribly enough that many, many, many (yes, an unsicentific term) journalists have simply stopped reading the site. And many who read it do so out of a train-wreck manner--and they hate the site. In fact, the site is continually unprofessional, juvenile, childish, amateurish, abominably bad, terrible, dumb, and even moronic. The site, oddly, is also often lacking in the understanding of basic journalism. How can Gawker continue to have a site about journalism overseen by someone who doesn't even understand basic journalism? The site is past its importance, and exists now simply as a curiousity. Gawker needs to get someone in there who knows what real journalism, and who can report real journalism news. Until that time, the site is small potatoes.
Just more naval-gazing by self-important douchebags who think they are more important than they really are. The dorks finally trying to get over on everyone who was a perceived bully to them in high school.

Twitter is crack for attention whores.
thefrontpage --

Gawker doesn't own Fishbowl, MediaBistro does.
Nice work, Moe. I don't miss the self-referential sycophancy inherent in the DC media market. But it's a guilty pleasure to check in on it once in a great while.
Thankfully for Rothstein and the bloggers, tweeters, and their friends, misogynism will never go out of style!

ttys mi amigos,
Kristofferson
"It’s that she is isn’t particularly snarky or dismissive about any of the shallow information she aggregates."

Since this is the kicker it might be worth correcting the typo to whatever it is you mean!
Tiys
Huh? Was this article about anything at all?
I'm surprised to see that she's 40. I always figured her for about 13.
There wasn't one subject covered in this piece that isn't either detestable or talentless. And headed straight to the top of the new establishment of course.
Maybe that's the point. (I think I remember remarking to a friend several months ago that DC was overrun by people like this.)

Kudos for turning the labors of these cyborgs into a readable comedy of manners though.
Who is she?
Amazing DC is a majority Black city does Besty know this? What drives this BLACKOUT theme??????
Betsy Rothstein, her website, and this article itself all make me want to pack my bags and leave Washington forever to settle in the foothills of West Va. The multiple layers of navel-gazing here (this article is nazel-gazing at a site that navel-gazes on an inherently navel-gazing profession) are blowing my mind. When will media types stop being obsessed with themselves? People accuse Hollywood celebs for their self importance and habit of congratulating themselves but journalists rival them in their egomania.
What an ugly cunt, who cares about this nobody woman?
Another stupid Jew with a big mouth...
Isn't she the one they call "Stinky Pussy" Rothstein?
Self absorbed. Self centered. Selfish. Boring. Insignificant. Uninteresting. Do any of these people ever grow up? They all seem to be trapped in adolescence. Have a drink with her? Why?
Writers writing about writers writing the written word about writers writing the written word.

I wish I had known about fishbowl before today, but now that' betsy's gone, it just won't be the same......

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