This elusiveness only serves to reenforce Rothstein’s “agenda vacuum,” the unexplained motivations behind her posts that rankle her critics the most. “At some point she decides Weigel is like, the most fascinating person in the universe,” HuffPo’s Linkins remembers. Not a week and a half later, Weigel was out of a job.
The way Rothstein explains it, Weigel officially became what she calls a “character in the play” in the middle of June, when two small fates that probably wouldn’t have seemed consequential on their own happened to befall the 29-year-old journalist, then a political blogger for The Washington Post. First, he dashed off a Monday morning blog post about a YouTube video that looked primed to become the “conservative meme of the week.” In the video, Democratic Rep. Bob Etheridge of North Carolina manhandles an unidentified conservative activist attempting to ambush-videotape him. Weigel described Etheridge as having “grabbed” the young man “in a hug,” instantly prompting a jeering Drudge link—“WASH POST: NOT AN ASSAULT, A ‘HUG’”—and attendant hate mail. Venting his frustration on Twitter, Weigel scoffed that some hate-mailers misspelled his name. Rothstein detailed the brief saga in a straight post, adding no commentary other than a photo of a polar bear hugging a wolf.
And that might have been that, but for a lengthy Examiner gossip item the next day about Weigel’s “wild and crazy dancing style” at Atlantic blogger Megan McArdle’s recent wedding. It was mostly the quotes: Weigel justified dancing alone by referring to the wedding as a “safe space,” claiming that “a few friends of the XX persuasion” had “eventually” danced with him. “I just thought the whole thing was so funny,” Rothstein says. Weigel was less amused, encouraging his Twitter followers to “block” the Examiner gossip. Rothstein wrote this up, too, reminding readers of Weigel’s strange earlier usage of “hug.” She soon received an e-mail from Weigel with a list of dictionary definitions for the word hug. “He was playing along,” Rothstein says. Weigel had reached official “Fishbowl celebrity” status.
The following Monday Rothstein got a tip from a reader who linked to an online news show that featured Weigel holding forth with two journalists of the XX persuasion. According to the tipster, the clip demonstrated that Weigel was checking out one of their chests. Rothstein wasn’t so sure. “I basically thought it was just Weigel being Weigel,” she says. But she posted the video anyway, directing readers to his hand gestures instead of his eyes. It was after this last (semi-gratuitous) post that a new tipster e-mailed Rothstein to gauge Fishbowl’s interest in a some uncensored Weigel e-mails he/she claimed to have. By Wednesday, Fishbowl had its biggest scoop of the year. And Rothstein had more enemies than she’d made in her whole career.
Before the tip, Rothstein had been vaguely aware of Weigel’s membership in what she terms the league of “boy band” bloggers, a clique of born-in-the-eighties wonks including Spencer Ackerman, Ezra Klein, and Matthew Yglesias. Weigel’s membership dates back to late 2008, when he defected from the libertarian magazine Reason and took a job at The Washington Independent, a left-leaning online journal specializing in the sort of thoroughly reported policy journalism that has died with the newspapers that once nurtured it amidst the so-called Politico-ization of everything else. (Nine months later, the Independent is also dead.) Along with the job leap, Weigel started posting to the liberal networking Google group Journolist, maintained by the boy band’s frontman, Post blogger Ezra Klein.
As with most things boy band, Rothstein was aware of Journolist but not enough of a wonk to care. She did not know it was the obsession of some on the right, namely Tucker Carlson, whose new Daily Caller website had been preparing a series on the “left-wing conspiracy.” She just knew the e-mails her source shared with her seemed newsworthy: In them, Weigel responds to items like Hug-gate and the wedding dance in typically over-the-top fashion. And Rothstein definitely knew Weigel’s most incendiary comment—”This would be a vastly better world to live in if Matt Drudge decided to handle his emotional problems more responsibly, and set himself on fire”—was highly unlikely to escape Drudge’s attention, which, in turn, would bring Fishbowl traffic.
After corroborating the e-mails’ authenticity with Weigel in a brief phone conversation, she posted some excerpts on Fishbowl. And within minutes, the Drudge hits started barreling in. The next 36 hours were a bit of a blur. “I had no idea that I had just opened this can of worms,” she says.