“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.