FishbowlDC writer Betsy Rothstein created a huge controversy yesterday by publishing a story declaring an “unusual trend” of female “campaign and White House reporters … using provocative, sometimes sexy photographs of themselves for their Twitter accounts.” Today, Ms. Rothstein spoke with The Politicker to give her side of the sexy photo flap.
Ms. Rothstein’s post inspired a huge backlash including a Twitter campaign launched by this reporter to get male members of the media to switch to sexed up Twitter profile photos to express solidarity with our female colleagues who were subjected to this story that was, in my view, “a clear example of the objectification and double standards that have existed far too long surrounding women in the workforce.” Ms. Rothstein fired back at some of her critics on Twitter including Gawker writer Maureen O’Connor who called her “a skank” leading Ms. Rothstein to reply in kind.
Since, I have already weighed in with my opinion on this story, I am presenting the conversation between myself and Ms. Rothstein as an interview edited only for length. Read on hear Ms. Rothstein explain why she felt the story was worthwhile, how the word “skank” is different from “sexpot,” and why she won’t address Ms. O’Connor in the future.
My conversation with Ms. Rothstein is below with my questions in bold and her responses in plain text.
Were you surprised by the firestorm that this sparked up?
Extremely, I never expected this in a million years. I really thought I was just doing–I wouldn’t say like a regular post, I think any time you introduce the word ‘sex’ into an item or a story, it kind of adds a provocative angle that gets people looking at it. And so, I didn’t necessarily think it would be ignored, but no I didn’t think it would be the explosion that it was.
So, do you think this was an important and valid point to raise?
Well, I guess I’m sort of interested in the way that you phrased that, because you’re saying ‘valid point.’ Well, for me, I was trying to raise an issue. That was the goal, to raise an issue that I think has not really been raised. I think there’s a lot of unexplored territory with the internet, with Twitter especially, and how focused journalism is with Twitter right now. … So, yeah, I was raising an issue and it sort of turned into this thing where I was ‘making judgements,’ I was ‘scolding.’ I mean, these were the accusations. You know this, you were part of it. You know, scolding, accusing, and for me, from where I sit and in my mind as I was writing it, I was presenting.
As you know, I definitely did have a reaction and opinion on this. My reaction was that I felt like these were fairly standard pictures and I know other people have pointed out that they were similar to a picture you yourself had used.
No, that wasn’t a picture I had used in any work capacity.
When you asked me for a picture, I gave it to you.
Someone had asked me where I had gotten it from and I honestly couldn’t even remember.
No, that wasn’t a Twitter avatar.
Update (2/27/12 4:08 pm): A copy of Ms. Rothstein’s Twitter account cached by Google shows she did use the picture in question as her avatar on Twitter.
So, what was it that you think about these three pictures specifically that was so inappropriate?
Again, you’re saying that I thought it was inappropriate. I don’t think I was saying that. That’s the distinction here. … I don’t know that I do think it’s inappropriate. I think it’s an interesting issue to look at, that’s what I think. I think the pictures, I found them provocative, yes. 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. I don’t think any less of these women because of their Twitter avatars, nor do I necessarily think that they should change them. That’s not even my call, that would be up to their bosses. But I think the larger issue here that maybe I didn’t get across in my piece effectively is there are no parameters at the moment with these issues, most organizations don’t have policies on these things and aren’t really thinking about them.
Well, you did single these pictures out as being to quote, ‘sexy and provocative.’ What made them that way in your mind?
Well, certainly the one where there was a lot of skin.
We’re talking about Maeve Reston where her shoulder is visible?
Yeah, but again, like there’s no judgement here. It’s not like Maeve is bad because she has this picture and she’s exposed her skin. I would like to be made clear, I am not painting these women as bad or even inappropriate. I’m raising the question, raising the issue. And what I think that’s being lost here is why is it such a hot-button issue?
I know part of my reaction to it was that I feel like I’ve seen men with pictures that I would say are fairly similar and there were no men highlighted in that post. … In all of these cases, these were people wearing attire that you could absolutely wear in the workplace and just looking at the camera.
It’s different, you would not see a man in a dress like that. You would not see that.
I mean that’s not attire that men typically wear.
Well, of course not, but I don’t think you could compare it like that and say, this is similar. It’s not similar.
So, you don’t think it’s holding these women up to a double standard or treating them differently than you would treat a male reporter?
I want to think about that before I answer it, could we move on just for a second?
We can go back to that. Another question I have that you were alluding to before was that you feel like you were mistreated in this, is that correct?
Right. There were a lot of accusations flying yesterday and I think that it got very heated. I think it rose to a level that was, I would say, pretty vicious. I mean, if you were the one that had a lot of people casting insults at you, you don’t know how you’re going to react or feel about it. For me, a lot of these people are strangers, so when that’s the case, I don’t really take it to heart. Was I being mistreated? I mean, look, I’m not a victim here. … 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.
Do you think what I did was an insult?
What did you do?
The avatar switch.
Oh, I found it funny, I did. I still think it’s funny. I think you were being both serious and funny. My perception is that you were standing up for your friends and you were also being funny, because that kind of works quite well together.
I definitely was trying to make a point and also be funny at the same time. I will say, I don’t know any of them personally apart from Maureen. But I sort of had the impression, and this gets back to what we were discussing before, that we’re all colleagues in the same space and, you know, I did think they were being held to a double standard and that there was an obligation by those of us that are also in that space to stand up.
But, I guess, addressing that issue of the double standard, here’s the thing, the problem here is that we’re coming at this, I mean you and I, are coming at this from different thought processes. Like you, I think, still believe that I was judging them in some way, judging them as bad. … For me, I was not, it’s more observation and raising an issue. There’s a huge difference right there. I can’t get in your head and twist the screws and make you really believe that, in my heart, I was not trying to hurt these women, hold them back, hold them to some different standard, or insist that they dress in any certain way, like dress in a more, you know, what one would consider proper.
I think where we’re getting hung up on is kind of semantic in that you were raising the issue that these photos were what you described as ‘sexy and provocative.’ I don’t think you’re necessarily putting judgement into that, but I guess the point I would be trying to make … I feel like I’ve seen pictures of male journalists where, you know, they’re headshots, and they’re looking at the camera and I don’t see it as that different from these pictures. Where I see the double standard is, I don’t think you were identifying pictures of men as sexy and provocative. It was really just happening to women, even if we remove the question of judgement.
Oh, I see what you mean. Well, see, I don’t know. I think that this story was this story. I don’t think it was saying that this never happens to men, it wasn’t addressing men in this story.
To get back to something you were saying before, obviously that photo, I don’t think it was your Twitter avatar, but it was a photo especially in providing it to us, that you had used professionally. Do you think that picture of you was provocative?
I think people would probably perceive it as provocative, yeah I do.
Would you use a photo like that again?
Would I use it again? Well, at this point, I don’t know.
What would you like to see come out of all of this? Do you think we should be having a discussion of professional attire in photos or what discussion do you think we should be having?
Well, I guess, in a larger sense, I think the discussion is about Twitter and the parameters of it … about the branding and about what kind of image do you want to present professionally? … People have different feelings about it, I mean, I think it’s good to think about what kind of image that you want to portray and what it means.
I guess I would summarize what you’re saying, and I’d like to hear from you whether you think this is accurate, I think you’re saying that these pictures were provocative in a certain way and that might not be professional. Maybe you’re saying that’s not a judgement, but to me, to highlight something as unprofessional, that does seem judgmental.
I disagree that I’m saying they’re unprofessional. Again, see, this is my problem, I feel like you’re trying to put a judgement on what I’m telling you and I don’t know that it’s unprofessional of them, I don’t.
You’re just you’re thinking that it’s a discussion we need to start having basically?
Well, I mean, I wrote the post and it got this huge, explosive reaction. So does it need to be had? I mean, I think the discussion needs to happen to find out why this is such a hot-button issue. I mean, there’s obviously something there, don’t you think?
I’ve told you why I think it got a reaction, at least out of me, in that I think it basically is accusing these people of being unprofessional and men would not be accused of being unprofessional for having a headshot or something else in a photo.
Well, I don’t know about that.
I think we can agrees to disagree on that.
Yeah, I think so, but I wouldn’t want you to characterize this as me saying that I think they’re unprofessional, because I don’t think that.
My final question on this would be whether you have any regrets in terms of how the post was handled and also in the reaction, specifically to Maureen O’Connor.
I do regret that, in the aftermath, there couldn’t be a civil discussion. I mean, it really degenerated very quickly into being called names like ‘skank’ and stuff like that. I mean, you know, Maureen did start that. You do realize that right?
Yes, but I think you know the same way that the writer who criticized you on Jezebel sort of used that language, I think both them and myself had sort of the impression that maybe you used the word ‘sexpot’ instead of ‘skank,’ but you were calling these women names. I think they would say that they responded in kind. … I think that there was a lot of outrage in the fact people felt you had called these women ‘sexpots’ for using these photos.
Right, but you know, if you want to have a civil discussion, calling me ‘a skank’ is not the way to start that discussion. I don’t see, necessarily, ‘sexpot’ as, I don’t see it as calling a woman a ‘skank.’ I do not.
So, what was your goal with that? Do you think there was anything wrong in using that phrase?
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.
Is there anything else? I really do want this to be your opportunity to respond. I genuinely have been eager to have a more nuanced discussion and allow you to get your side out on this.
Well, that’s the thing. … I just don’t think that Twitter’s the medium to do that, especially like when people are attacking you and calling you different names and stuff. I just don’t see that. … Even you today, you’re waiting for an apology. I’m not going to apologize for raising an issue. No.
Well, I think exactly what my Tweet said, is that I was waiting for you to apologize or address this, and I think now you are.
And I don’t apologize. I mean, do I have regrets and would I do things differently? Well, yeah. I think with every life experience that you have, you go through it and you experience it the way you do, and then you decide for next time, well, what would I want to be different? Well, next time I wouldn’t engage with Maureen O’Connor. You know, it’s simply not worth it. I mean, she writes about Arianna’s poop. Is that holding women back? Maybe, and I hope you quote me on that. I think that’s a really important point. Here is a woman who’s getting on my case for what I wrote, but can we examine what she has written?
Is there anything else other than that that you would want to address now that you’re being given the opportunity to address this more in depth?
I think that, looking back at the story, I wish that I had done it in a more in depth way. I think I just wanted to present a quicker look at it. If I could do it again, and I may look into this issue more, I would want to do it more in depth and I wouldn’t have this big fight on Twitter. I wouldn’t, it’s not worth it.
Well, that’s pretty much all the questions I have. I would say I really do appreciate you, given that I did obviously take a side on this, I appreciate you trusting me to be a venue for you to present your side of it.
Well, I think I trust you. We’ll see what you do with it.
Full Disclosure: From 2008 until 2009 this reporter worked as a contributing editor at FishbowlDC’s sister site, FishbowlNY.
(Updated 11:15 pm to include disclosure and longer description of the exchange between Ms. O’Connor and Ms. Rothstein)