The One Word That Describes FishbowlDC’s Betsy Rothstein


FishbowlDC gossip and media reporter Betsy Rothstein is, to put it mildly, a polarizing figure in Washington, DC. Despised by some for her role in Dave Weigel‘s Journolist-fueled career reorganization, dismissed by others as a petty gossip, she also enjoys a stealth legion of admirers who appreciate her hard work and Keyser Soze-like omnipresence. When word spread of my interview with Rothstein, “Team Betsy” emerged from the woodwork to weigh in, and the common theme was quickly evident: Betsy Rothstein is fearless.

Weigel is a friend of mine, so I had mixed feelings about reaching out to Betsy Rothstein, whose publication of Weigel’s Journolist emails quickly led to his resignation from The Washington Post. On the other hand, Betsy had endeared herself to me by frequently quoting me (a surer way to my heart than a scalpel and a rib-spreader), and with her self-possessed writing style.

We first met a few weeks ago, for some off-the-record drinks at the Hotel Dupont, and for some reason, I was expecting Rothstein to look like a cross between Dame Edna and Bootsy Collins, with a big voice to match. What I found was an attractive, petite, conservatively dressed, soft-spoken young (younger-looking than her resume´ suggests) woman. I told several White House colleagues that I was meeting Betsy, some of whom expressed enthusiastic fandom (she’s probably on more radar screens than she knows), along with bemusement at the notion of journalists as subjects of celebrity-style gossip. It was then that I first got the idea to interview Betsy for Mediaite.

Let’s put it this way: If Osama bin Laden had been Betsy Rothstein’s boyfriend, he’d probably be alive today. When I took a stab at her romantic status, she said, “I wouldn’t tell you my favorite color, do you really think I’m gonna go there?”

I pitched the idea to her during that first encounter, and was greeted with what I assumed was de rigeur, “Oh, who wants to hear about me?” modest reluctance, but when it came time to actually arrange it, I discovered she was dead serious. Complex negotiations that rivaled the START Treaty ensued, with Rothstein flatly refusing to appear on video, reluctant even to allow a reference recording, and in order to get her to agree to let me take some pictures, I had to agree to let her select which photo would be used. She’s a tough customer.

She’s also very protective of her personal life, an angle Betsy quickly derides as “stale.” Perhaps, but when an interview subject becomes evasive when asked what her favorite color is, it is at least noteworthy. Getting Rothstein to talk about herself isn’t like pulling teeth, it’s like pulling her entire jaw. When I asked her where she was from, she paused, and replied, “Ohio.” She must frustrate the hell out of her GPS navigator.

Let’s put it this way: If Osama bin Laden had been Betsy Rothstein’s boyfriend, he’d probably be alive today. When I took a stab at her romantic status, she said, “I wouldn’t tell you my favorite color, do you really think I’m gonna go there?”

When I asked Betsy what the least favorite part of her job was, she delivered her quickest response of the day: “This interview (which she later described, jokingly?, as “torture”).”

That’s not to say that Rothstein is prickly; her responses are guarded, but good-natured, and she delivers periodic critiques of my questions (“that’s not interesting”) and her answers. The meta-banter fits perfectly into a conversation between two reporters who report on reporters.

Rothstein goes on to volunteer that she sometimes doesn’t like “the grind of it…feeling like I have to publish something that may not be very good, wishing I had more time. I always feel rushed.”

She becomes considerably more voluble when I ask about her favorite part of the job. “I like the moment before you’re about to run a really controversial item, that moment right after you hit the ‘publish’ button, and you’re waiting for all hell to break loose.”

“When I write about Howard Kurtz,” she says, for example, “I tend to be somewhat obnoxious. I got that feeling on the last thing I wrote, Howard Kurtz: Mr. Suckup. It’s not the kind of thing that the whole town would come down on me for, but usually when I write those kinds of items, I notice that I get some backlash.”

From Kurtz? “Who knows? I mean, these people write in anonymously…I kind of think that, maybe, he’s written in comments, but I can’t prove that.”

When I ask her about those she calls “the haters,” she volunteers, “Jason Linkins is an asshole.”

I try to draw her out with a cutesy Mad Libs question that she finds clever, but tough to answer: I consider myself a blank first, and a blank second. Finally, she responds, characteristically, “I consider myself a journalist first, and whatever my party affiliation is second.”

When I ask her about those she calls “the haters,” she volunteers, “Jason Linkins is an asshole.”

Linkins, The Huffington Post‘s Eat The Press editor, reciprocates the sentiment. He told The Washington City Paper that Rothstein was ““the platonic ideal of a complete f***ing moron.”

Betsy says that many of her critics are “cowards who won’t give their names,” but she says she respects those who are willing to insult her using their own names. “Who are the haters? The Boy Banders…Jason Linkins. I don’t know if (Linkins) actively dislikes me now, but I was on his active list at one point. It all started from the Weigel mess, their little nerdy bunch stuck together, so Jason Linkins jumped right on board, told me I should die in a fire. Some of his colleagues wrote me and apologized for him, but that doesn’t really count, it’s not an apology from him.”

“The fact is, I’ve never met him,” Rothstein says. “It’s kind of this weird aura of hate with people who have never actually sat down and had coffee together (with me).”

Of Betsy’s numerous DC detractors, only Dave Weigel would comment for this story, and even then, somewhat reluctantly. I asked Dave what he thought of the idea that, while the Journolist story was an unwelcome upheaval, it significantly raised his profile, and his career looks stronger than ever. “It’s almost like Betsy was to you as my heart attack was to me,” I said.

Weigel conceded, “I would definitely say that in the parallel universe where I’m still the blogger-on-things-conservative at WaPo, and I spent the last week chasing Sarah Palin‘s bus, I am much less happy…”

When I ask Rothstein about Weigel, she calls back to an idea that we discussed during our first meeting, a Love Connection-style date/interview with Weigal and her, and me as Chuck Woolery. “I thought we were going to go boating!” she says.

I ask her if she thinks she went at Weigel a little too hard. “Nope,” she offers quickly, “not at all. Our anniversary’s coming up, I think at the end of June. The anniversary of Weigel-gate.”

What’s the proper gift for such an anniversary? “I think he should have lunch with me.”

Weigel and Rothstein have a lot of mutual friends, and she says “I was at a party with him fairly recently, I tried to talk with him, I just kind of want to know, what’s this guy like that I’ve been writing about? And he would not talk to me. I just find it funny.”

She says she tried to ask Weigel some innocuous question about an upcoming story, and he looked at her and said, “I don’t talk to you, and you don’t talk to me.”

Rothstein says of the venom that at first, “I couldn’t shake it off very well…I remember my first week, people wrote in, and I was like, ‘It’s gonna be a long year.’ People wanted their old Fishbowl back. That was kind of hard at first.”

“People think I want to have Ezra Klein’s baby,” she offers, with a laugh, “I think there are a lot of people who would like to see that, just for the comedy of it. I don’t know, would an alien come out of me?”

“(Now) I can laugh it off very quickly, and if I can’t, you know, I can write whatever I want, (laughs) so, you know, I can immediately respond.”

And respond, she does. FishbowlDC co-editor Matt Dornic says, “What I see as a weakness could also be considered an incredible strength – the inability to walk away from a Twitter feud. Although her tiffs have been good for gaining followers, they can become overly-consuming. The constant need to respond to people pummeling us with comments, questions and oftentimes insults on Twitter is exhausting and mentally taxing. I only use @FishbowlDC at events or if a subject is especially interesting to me. She’s on it all morning, day and night.”

On whether she deserves her reputation as a provocateur, Betsy says, “In Washington? Sure, everyone here is so thin-skinned. (But) in New York, I don’t know if what I do would have an impact.”

Tucker Carlson: “She’s fearless, she actually doesn’t care. She writes honestly about people, when few others do.”

Her reputation doesn’t hinder her ability to get a story. “It doesn’t matter if people will talk to me, they can still be a character on Fishbowl,” she says. “I’ve never met Ezra Klein, which is strange considering how much I’ve written about him.”

“If there’s a perception that people won’t talk to me,” she continues, “that’s wrong. I couldn’t do my job if people didn’t talk to me.”

“People think I want to have Ezra Klein’s baby,” she offers, with a laugh, “I think there are a lot of people who would like to see that, just for the comedy of it. I don’t know, would an alien come out of me?”

“It’s funny, people are like, ‘Why do you hate these guys?’ I do this feature where I rate (Politico reporter) Amie Parnes‘ on how much she ass-kisses Michelle Obama, and people ask me ‘Why do you hate her?’ I don’t know her, I’ve not met her, I’m covering people. I’m not trying to make friends with everybody.”

“Of course, I do have friends, I’ve been doing this a long time, and some of these journalists are my friends, but that doesn’t mean I won’t cover this beat the way that I want to cover it.”

Washington Times columnist Charles Hurt, a “huge fan” of Rothstein’s, underscores this. “…you invite her to your party at your peril. Betsy does not get won over by an invite and she will cover things exactly as she sees them, which isn’t necessarily so pretty.

While Rothstein’s critics have no problem being profanely blunt, her fans all agree on a different f-word to describe Betsy: fearless. Bob Cusack, Betsy’s old editor at The Hill, sums up what I heard from everyone I contacted about Betsy: “She is fearless. She will ask a question that will make everyone in the room uncomfortable, and defend her right to ask that question.”

He also identifies the same possible weakness that others notice in Betsy, her penchant for scrappiness. “Betsy can be stubborn, no doubt about it. When she and I got into fights over what should, and should not be in her gossip column at The Hill, the battles were loud and long. But they were healthy confrontations, and any bad feelings between us didn’t linger.”

Cusack says he used that streak against her once. “…a couple years ago…I set up a fake gmail account to pretend I was an annoying PR person who repeatedly tried to get her to write a story on something really lame. She yelled and yelled at this fictional character over email for a week and complained to me about him.”

“Later his fictional ex-girlfriend, using another gmail acct, said she wanted to meet Betsy in a DC park to give her a picture of this supposed nutcase. Sure enough, Betsy showed up and we videotaped her at the park.”

Liberal radio host Bill Press is firmly in the Team Betsy camp. “I’m a huge fan of Betsy’s,” Press told me. “She’s EVERYWHERE! NOTHING happens in Washington that she doesn’t know about. Usually, ahead of time. Wicked sense of humor. Sees the fun or mischief in everything.”

Press identifies a major part of Betsy’s appeal. In a business where everyone seems to be writing versions of the same story, she writes about things you won’t see anywhere else. “My favorite story,” Press relates, “was the time I missed a show because of food poisoning – maybe, I thought, because of a hot dog I’d consumed on AMTRAK. Betsy heard about it, got on the case, ended up getting a full ‘OUR HOT DOGS ARE SAFE AND HAVE NEVER MADE ANYONE SICK’ statement out of Amtrak.”

The PR departments at the various TV and cable networks can be particularly onerous for media reporters. “For about the first six months, it just seemed like a non-stop stream of people yelling at me,” Rothstein says of the various PR flacks, “but now, I think they’re used to me.”

I ask her what interview she’s been unable to get due to PR interference. “Anybody at Fox News,” she says. I ask her what she would ask if she could, and she says, “I would ask Bill O’Reilly about The View, when Whoopi Goldberg and Joy (Behar) walked off, I’d want to know how he felt about eliciting such emotion, basically by his mere presence, that he could get them to walk off the set.”

In a town where graduating to the next medium, or a higher-profile outlet, is the Holy Grail, Rothstein’s ambitions are remarkably grounded. “I don’t have a five-year plan,” she says, “(but) if I had some faraway goal, it would be, maybe, Washington editor for some magazine. That would be fun…What I’m doing right now is pretty ideal.”

That’s probably a good thing, since Betsy’s brand of fearlessness isn’t always the best career propellant, as Politico’s Patrick Gavin points out.  “Betsy’s most unique characteristic has always been her lack of interest in what anyone thinks of her. She’s very fearless in that way.”

“It’s also what makes her noteworthy in this town,” Gavin continues, “which is filled with people who are trying to safely navigate the career waters, where networking and source-greasing run rampant. There are a lot of posts and approaches she takes that make me think, ‘Man, I never would have done that.’ I don’t think she has that voice inside her head.”

The Daily Caller‘s Tucker Carlson called me up within minutes of my email request, and one of the first things he said to me was, “She’s fearless, she actually doesn’t care. She writes honestly about people, when few others do.”

Carlson is also impressed by Rothstein’s mysterious ability to obtain internal Daily Caller memos. “I’ve asked all forty people who work for me, no one will ‘fess up.” Carlson says her ability to procure his internal emails leaves him “Infuriated, baffled, and impressed.”

Infuriation aside, Carlson is firmly on Team Betsy. “She is everywhere. She’s a ferociously hard worker. She’s also very thoughtful, she has a deep understanding of how this town works.”

Toward the end of our interview, I try to shake something loose with some fluffy lightning-round questions about herself, and the deflector shields go up. What’s your favorite color? (long pause) “It changes, but generally…I don’t know.”

Do you have any tattoos? “No.” If you were going to get a tattoo, what would it be? “I wouldn’t get a tattoo.” Why not? “I think they’re…trashy.”

Favorite sports team? “I don’t like sports.”

What’s your greatest guilty pleasure? (long pause, hemming and hawing) “I guess it’s not guilty.”

Fine, what’s your greatest pleasure? (laughs) “Avoiding your questions.”

She perks up, though, as a meta-critique of the interview process pops into her head.”God, now I see how stupid these questions are…(I laugh)…No, I can see how they wouldn’t work. I ask some of this stuff, too. I guess, depending on who you ask, some of the real narcissists will have all of these answers ready for you.”

“So, then, I guess you don’t consider yourself a narcissist?” I ask.

“I don’t think I am,” she responds. “Not today.”

I caught up with Betsy’s former Hill colleague Sam Youngman at the White House later that day, and when I asked him about her, the affection in his voice was palpable. “Betsy’s a dear friend,” Youngman said. “Betsy has the right sense of humor for the job she does, and she brings a journalist’s sense of duty to that beat.”

He pauses for a moment. “I know not everyone in Washington loves her,” he says, wistfully, “but I do.”

Have a tip we should know?

Filed Under: