Betsy Rothstein's year in Twitter battles

Correction:

This story originally referred to a Twitterer with the handle @walkinghorse as "he" and "him"; @walkinghorse, as her Twitter page makes clear, is a woman.

On June 26, Betsy Rothstein published a stirring defense of media journalism. Rothstein, the editor of Fishbowl DC, a media news and gossip site, had published some of a Washington Post blogger’s e-mails to a private Listserv, and the ensuing revelation that he’d disparaged some of the conservative commentators he regularly reported on led to him resigning from the paper. Rothstein talked about her duty to cover D.C. media even if the consequences were major. “It’s not a reporter’s job to worry about the outcome of a genuine news story in that it may upset some people,” she wrote. Later she talked about why the sins of the outed blogger, Dave Weigel, particularly irked her: “I don’t believe a reporter can hate those he or she covers and do it carefully or fairly,” she wrote.

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Long story short

Betsy Rothstein of @fishbowldc doesn't hate the people she covers -- just the ones who talk back.

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That stance may come as a surprise to anyone who subscribes to Fishbowl’s Twitter feed.

Rothstein has never had much patience for having her methods (or her innumerable factual errors) questioned, but for most of her early tenure as Fishbowl’s editor, a job she began in December 2009, she’s either written posts or used their comments sections to smack around detractors. Since September, though, she’s increasingly taken her tiffs to Twitter, testily engaging readers and journalists who took issue with her coverage in pithy, vicious bursts.

“One remark is hardly obsession. Don't be so foolish. #lowreadingcomprehension,” she wrote on election night when a reader with the Twitter handle @walkinghorse questioned her characterization of Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann’s dress as tight. As things usually unspool with Rothstein, a minor disagreement quickly turned into a full-on flame war; she sent three more tweets to @walkinghorse, told @walkinghorse she’d made one remark, said “BFD” when @walkinghorse pointed out it was in fact, two, used the insult hash tag twice more, then told @walkinghorse the fact was Bachmann was wearing a tight dress and that @walkinghorse should “Deal with it.”

It was a signature Rothstein argument: If you don’t like how I run Fishbowl, take your business elsewhere. There’s some sense to this stance: In 2010, Rothstein turned the site from a sleepy chronicler of media peoples’ shoes and dogs into a player on the city’s media-news beat. Her scoops included not just l’affair Weigel but the departure of TBD’s general manager, Jim Brady, from the site he’d founded and, two days before Christmas, the stormy end of Moe Tkacik’s tenure as a staff writer at Washington City Paper.

Tkacik had written a nuanced profile of Rothstein a few weeks earlier that posited her as the gossip columnist “the Beltway Media deserves”; when a reader questioned Tkacik’s behavior in an editorial dispute that preceded the split, Rothstein’s attacks got more vinegary than usual.

A commenter called “thefrontpage” said he found Tkacik’s behavior in the tiff, which centered on a post she’d written that named the women who’d accused Wikileaks founder Julian Assange of rape, “immature, juvenile, childish and unprofessional.” “Um, Matt Neufeld, you can HARDLY call yourself a professional journalist or any other kind of journalist for that matter,” Rothstein wrote in reply. “You write this stuff like you're an authority on anything and we at this site know that you are not.”

Amanda Hess, a blogger at TBD (and one of three staffers at this organization to have drawn sustained Rothstein fire since it launched in August), sent Rothstein a private message via Twitter with a link to Tkacik’s original story. Rothstein had called the piece as “a story involving rape and ‘hot’ women.” Hess says she felt that Rothstein characterized the story poorly and should read the original post, which had been taken down and republished by City Paper’s editors, who scrubbed out the offending names in the interval.

“Dear TBD's @amandahess, thanks so much for giving us @moetkacik's original WCP piece, but no thanks. You're a bit too two-faced for me,” Rothstein wrote in a public response to a private message. Five more tweets followed, the last a curt dismissal of Hess: “I do think our ‘conversation’ is over,” Rothstein wrote.

It was classic Rothstein — initiate a spat, hurl insults, then barricade the doors against further discussion. Twitter’s different things to different people: To journalists it’s often a collection of small conversations that make up a larger one with your readers. In Rothstein’s case, that conversation usually ends with a remark like "Please go back into your fat hole."

After several e-mails with Rothstein, who refused to speak to me on the phone about this piece, she agreed to provide the following comment about the examples of her Twitter feuds that you can read on the next page. "I have no ill will or distaste for Dave Weigel, but you’re comparing apples and oranges," she writes. “If we said all journalists were journotards and should light themselves on fire, then you have a case. But having twitter feuds in a public domain is hardly the same thing.”

"I think there are a number of reasons to start a Twitter feud with FishbowlDC, which most of your examples are here: one it’s good fodder, two it’s fun and amusing and three, it’s a great way to gain followers and promote your own feed. Just as I suspect you’re doing with this story."

On the next page: A visual history of Rothstein battle tweets.

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