Inside D.C. entertainment

Media Monday: Meet the collateral damage from the FishbowlDC fracas

February 27, 2012 - 09:47 AM
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"I’m not going to be like some wilting flower," Betsy Rothstein says. (Flickr/twid)

Last week we witnessed the most aggressive media pile-on in recent memory, as a number of journalists, including me, accused FishbowlDC editor Betsy Rothstein of everything from objectifying women to not understanding the definition of "provocative" to being, essentially, a misogynist for writing that three attractive women reporters' were going for a "sexpot look" with their "sexy" and "provocative" Twitter avatars. Somewhat lost in the hullabaloo was Rothstein's clearest offense: shoddy journalism. Nevermind that the reporters' avatars were, in everyone's opinion but hers, utterly benign; Rothstein's reporting didn't even back up her claim.

She quoted two people, the first being Phillips Media Relations president Brad Phillips, author of the Mr. Media Training blog. "While he said none of the pictures we showed him struck him as particularly 'bad' or necessarily overly 'sexually suggestive', he does see potential pitfalls," Rothstein wrote. The direct quote, which Phillips emailed to her and shared with me, was: "I don't think any of the three photos are particularly bad. I don't find them sexually suggestive or provocative, and they're pretty commonplace as avatars in the social media world.”

Even paraphrased, the quote undermines Rothstein's premise, but note how she spun it, ever so slightly, to serve her purpose. The full quote makes clear that Rothstein, were she practicing responsible journalism, should have abandoned the story altogether, or at least sought out a different expert to buttress her argument — and, while she was at it, actually found reporters with sexy, provocative avatars. It also wouldn't have hurt to get in touch with the three reporters in question: Ashley Parker, Maeve Reston, and Amie Parnes. (I sought comment from them via Twitter, but didn't get a response.)

When I spoke with Phillips, who was noticeably unsettled by his unwitting role in this controversy, he reiterated what he's already on the record as saying: that he sees nothing provocative with the reporters' Twitter pics. "It was based on seeing those photos that I said I didn’t think they were terribly provocative,” he told me. "The three avatars look pretty commonplace to me."

About his conversation with Rothstein, he says, "The issue I was speaking to was largely genderless." That's not apparent in the article. "I was surpised that the context of those comments was wrapped around 'sexpot,' which was something I couldn't have seen coming," he says. "I probably would have declined [to comment] if I'd known that was the frame that was wrapped around it.”

The other man quoted in the article — the gender of the interviewees is worth stressing here — was Harry Jaffe, the Washingtonian columnist, who's no stranger to controversy and has taken his lumps from FishbowlDC. He was notably less bothered by this whole affair. "It's Betsy," he says. "Why the shock?"

Whether Jaffe should have been quoted at all, though, is up for debate, considering he hadn't even seen the three avatars in question. "From my perspective, my mistake, if I made one, was not looking at the images on the Twitter feeds," he says. "My bad, but I still stand by what I said. You know, I think that everybody’s competing for attention, even more so in the Twitter world, and I don't see any problem with having a provocative photograph. I just don't see a problem with it. Does that mean I think it makes sense for a woman in the White House pool to be baring her breasts on her Twitter picture? No. But if she, or he, is attractive, why not use it?”

While Phillips does perceive "some accusation behind the post," he wouldn't venture a guess as to why Rothstein wrote it in the first place. "I'm uncomfortable speaking for her motives," he says. Jaffe, too, steers clear of that question: "I'm not going to impugn Betsy Rothstein motives. Betsy’s a bomb thrower. I don't know what people expect.”

This is what most perplexes me: why. From Michelle Fields to Wendy Gordon to Anqoinette Crosby, Rothstein has consistently singled out attractive women reporters and publicists for criticism over how they present themselves in public. Mediabistro, if it's bothered by this pattern, isn't saying so; Chris Ariens, the site's editorial director, declined to comment for this article.

I'd ask Rothstein myself, but considering that she's blocked me from following both her personal Twitter account and that of FishbowlDC — and tweeted about it — I think it's safe to assume she's not interested in discussing this with me. She did, however, grant an interview late last week to the Observer's Hunter Walker. Here are some highlights, with commentary.

• Rothstein insists that a photo in which she's baring her shoulders "wasn't a Twitter avatar," but, as we know, she was using that photo for her personal Twitter account until changing it to a sexy pot of roses. If you don't believe me, Google Images has cached it. (And now we know why she chose that photo, for she tells Walker, "I know I write controversial things and I know that covering the media and writing controversial things, I’m going to be attacked. I know that and I’m not going to be like some wilting flower.")

• "I think the pictures, I found them provocative, yes," she says. "I definitely stand by that. But now to take it a step further, was I scolding them? Do I think it’s inappropriate? I don’t know. I’d have to give that some thought, but that’s not what first comes to mind for me." But why didn't she give it some thought before writing the article?

• Pressed about what makes the avatars provocative, she mentioned Reston's, "where there was a lot of skin." (Reston appears to be wearing an evening dress in the photo.) Rothstein says nothing of the other two photos. She's as much as admitting that she found one pic — which, incidentally, shows about as much skin as her now-former Twitter avatar — and used it to say that the reporters are going for a "sexpot look."

• "Looking back, I think that I would have made the headline more of a question. Would I use the word again? I’m not sure," she says. But adding a single question mark and replacing "sexpot," while making the story less accusatory, would not have solved the post's fundamental problem, which is one of context. She insists she was only trying to "raise an issue," but by singling out three women reporters, she was — explicitly or by association — questioning whether their tame avatars were somehow inappropriate.

• Asked if she was surprised by the firestorm, Rothstein says, "Extremely, I never expected this in a million years." This response boggles me the most. Either Rothstein is being disingenuous, and knew she was courting controversy with the article, or she truly doesn't understand what all the fuss is about. I'm not sure which is more frightening.

As Phillips told me, "I'm not sure a controversy is inconsistent with the FishbowlDC brand.” Jaffe, meanwhile, wondered why we're still surprised when Rothstein writes such things. Against my better judgment, though, I'm going to take her at her word — that she believed she was merely raising the issue, and had no idea the post would cause a commotion. This is not a generous conclusion. For if she really were naïve, then the fault lies with her execution. To put it bluntly, she's a talented media gossip reporter, but a careless writer.

Jaffe calls journalists "the most thin-skinned people in the world,” but judging from FishbowlDC's Twitter stream, Rothstein is the most thin-skinned one in town. I don't know why she responds to critics so viscerally. Perhaps it's because she's also the biggest bomb-thrower in town. Or maybe, if she truly was surprised by this firestorm, there's a disconnect between what she thinks she's written and what she's actually written — and, consequently, she assumes all criticism is of her, as a person, rather than her writing. Take her to task for an ill-formed article, and she responds with puerile insults, perhaps not realizing that ultimately it's her journalism, not her character, that we find so offensive.

The Post throws another idea at the wall, hopes it will stick. Maybe ombudsman Patrick Pexton was on to something when he said the paper needs to chill out on all this innovation stuff. Its latest effort is Personal Post, which, as TechCrunch explains, is "a river of content that you can customize." Basically, it's a blog of Post stories that it thinks will you like, based on what you've read before (if you've opened an online account, allowing it to track your clicks). It's not a terrible idea, but for now the presentation is too bare. The graphics are flat, the images few. If they can find a way to personalize the homepage — and redesign it, while they're at it — then maybe I'll give it a whirl.


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In lieu of a tweet, here's a line from Zak's evisceration of the Portlandia live show at the 9:30 club: "There was no encore. One needs material and enthusiasm to do an encore."



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