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.