If she’d known what she knows now, she says, she would have marshaled every Daily Caller source and hanger-on she knew to figure out why they’d been sitting on the e-mails so long and who their sources were. The next morning, lest Rothstein take all the air out of their own scoop, the Daily Caller posted a second stash of Weigel’s e-mails, also taking aim at the far right and the media that covers them. By noon, he had resigned from the Post. And dozens of progressive bloggers were rallying to the libertarian’s defense.
The real weirdness came that evening, at a party hosted by The Huffington Post to fête its new daily newsletter HuffPo Hill. Weigel was there with a Post buddy, but he was talking on his cell phone the whole time. A longtime acquaintance of Rothstein’s from her days at The Hill approached her with an odd proposition. “I think I can convince Weigel to forgive you,” he promised, as if she had done something wrong; she politely demurred. Later someone else “dared” her to approach Weigel, reasoning that it would make for a great post.
“I never should have done that,” Rothstein says now. When she tried to introduce herself, “it was ice.” (“I just said, ‘I’m not talking to you,’” is how Weigel recalls it.) Back at home, Keith Olbermann was pronouncing her “worst person in the world,” a designation she shared with Tucker Carlson. “I had to form a really thick skin,” Rothstein says.
“I t’s not rocket science why she started taking an interest in me,” Weigel tells me in late October over beers at The Big Hunt. “I had [thousands of] Twitter followers. I had a big audience already. When you’re running something like Fishbowl, it’s your job to figure out who the ‘cool kids’ are. If you aren’t one of them, you write about them.”
This statement is striking for many reasons, most conspicuously for the fact that Weigel is to the ’80s movie definition of “cool kid” about what Etheridge’s chokehold was to a “hug.” This is in large part the source of his appeal: He’s a lovable dork who makes no apologies for it. (He later told Rothstein in an interview that he spent much of his high school days playing Final Fantasy.) This is, of course, why Rothstein found herself drawn to him. But it is true that such people truly are the “cool kids” of this town, which points to the less endearing truth of Weigel’s comment: That the backlash against Rothstein is to a large extent the rallying of D.C.’s wonky media “cool kids” around one of its foremost boy-band bloggers.
I imagine most of the cool kids would strenuously dispute this depiction of events, in keeping with their debate team captain pedigrees. Yet two days after Weigel resigned he wrote a mea culpa of sorts explaining that he had been “dazzled” by his admittance into the exclusive Journolist, and that he wrote his more insulting screeds against conservatives in a shameless bid to get liberals to like and accept them by telling them what they wanted to hear.
Rothstein doesn’t quite buy that explanation; she watched all his TV appearances closely and says she thinks Weigel was “tortured” by the hate mail in the way of someone who had been “in the closet” and needed to come out. And given that Weigel chose Andrew Breitbart’s Big Government as the outlet on which to confess his deep-seated need to be liked by the cool kids, he could simply have been attempting to re-ingratiate himself with the cool crowd about to sweep Congress. Whatever the case, he found a new gig at MSNBC a week after his Breitbart essay and a home for his blog at Slate a month after that. “I was watching him on Twitter one night at like 3 a.m. getting into it with somebody, and at one point, someone asks if he’s going to bed ever, and he tweets, ‘I will NEVER STOP,’ in all caps,” Rothstein says. “He’s a typical D.C. workaholic.”
But there is more to it than that: by his own admission, Weigel’s addiction is also to being liked, or at least, paid attention to. It’s a trait Rothstein’s characters seem to share, by the looks of their Twitter feeds. Weigel has tapped out more than 18,000 Tweets; Jake Tapper, another regular on Fishbowl, more than 24,000; Sarah Palin, by contrast, has produced 720 tweets, and Howard Kurtz a mere 3,914.
Take a close look and you’ll see that Rothstein mostly fixates on media figures who are either famous or act as if they are. The characters in her play are low-hanging fruit. There’s a case to be made that much of what Rothstein does could probably be programmed into a moderately sophisticated algorithm. Certainly you could say that of her daily “soup of the day” post, in which she essentially copies and pastes MSNBC’s daily feature on which soup the White House is serving that day. But if one of our national news outlets is devoting labor to collecting this bit of pointless information every single day, it’s arguably ideal fodder for the media blog.
A common trait of early gossip blogs was that they were often smarter than they had to be. Fishbowl DC is adamantly not. But these days, this trait is absent not only from most of the blogosphere but from nearly all of the content generated by anyone who might merit gossip. Many within the D.C. media might fancy themselves immune from the dumbed down Politico-ization of everything, but if they regularly appear on Twitter and cable news shows they are lying to themselves.
In the end, Rothstein’s biggest failing isn’t the dumb errors that pop up on her site. It’s not the misreadings that critics whack her for. It’s that she is isn’t particularly snarky or dismissive about any of the shallow information she aggregates. She mostly just reports it. Which, in Washington, actually means she does what most of the folks she covers are also doing.