Doug Heye was in a good mood as he made dinner Saturday night.
The Republican strategist had just received a quarantine-specific distinction: A 9 out of 10 rating from the Room Rater Twitter account.
“Love the port wine posters. Sunflowers. Depth. Add pillow to left. 9/10,” it read, referencing the background of his recent TV appearance.
“I had gotten a 5 earlier. I had really bad lighting, and I deserved it. So get a nine, I was just like, ‘This is great,'” Heye said. “It’s admittedly silly, and yet so many people care about it.”
The account, which is run by Claude Taylor and his fiance, Jessie Bahrey, became an early pandemic diversion, like sourdough bread, Netflix watch parties and newly adopted puppies. Pundits were suddenly appearing on the cable news channels not from remote studios but on Zoom or Skype from bedrooms, living rooms and makeshift offices. Taylor and Bahrey rate their home setups, docking points for things like visible cords or a poorly angled screen and awarded them for well-organized bookcases or stylish art.
Taylor said the account, which has more than 350,000 followers, is meant to be “tongue in cheek.”
“It’s all meant to be lighthearted fare for the covid pandemic and lockdown,” he said. “None of it is meant to be taken that seriously. And 98 percent of the time, people react with the humor in which it’s intended.”
But a backlash against the account has been bubbling under the surface – and finally overflowed on social media the night of Heye’s rating, when former Republican Florida Gov. Jeb Bush retweeted it with some added commentary.
“Mr. Room Rater, is it possible now that the election is over to rate rooms on a non partisan basis? Are you a room rater or a hyper partisan person that is the problem? We need less hyper partisanship on backgrounds at this time for our country,” Bush tweeted, adding, “Room man, do a review of your ratings based on ideology and publish it. The backgrounds are varied but your bias is constant. Be honest. Try to make a difference. If not, you are part of the problem.”
Bush is referencing the account’s occasional openly biased ratings, which should come as no surprise given that Taylor runs a liberal PAC. Case in point: In the past week, Rudolph Giuliani, Donald Trump Jr. and Emily Murphy – President Donald Trump’s embattled head of the General Services Administration – all got flat 0s, and insulting captions, to boot.
The Clintons, meanwhile, got a 10/10 with the caption, “Jeb be damned,” despite an arguably unremarkable backdrop. (Which is even less surprising, considering Taylor worked in the Clinton White House.)
Still, many were baffled that Bush used Heye’s rating as an example, given the high score. Bush declined The Washington Post’s request for comment via email, saying, “I dont think it is a very big deal.”
“We were honestly confused,” said Taylor. “We didn’t know if he was [mad] because the score was too high or too low. It just didn’t really make sense.”
Many also responded by pointing out that not all liberals are free from the account’s criticism.
“Dude, I got a 3 and a . . . ‘In character but nevertheless worrying,'” tweeted Esquire’s liberal political writer Charles P. Pierce. “My dude, I’m a progressive democrat and @ratemyskyperoom gave me a 1/10 + claimed it looked like i was in a ‘hostage situation,'” tweeted Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman.
In fact, Bush’s tweets opened the floodgates of denunciations that had nothing to do with party politics, from critics who say the account is invasive, cruel and potentially classist.
New York Times technology columnist Charlie Warzel tweeted, “i dunno who needs to hear it but i will die on this hill . . . room rater sucks so hard.”
“Look guys, room rater is toxic and I think it’s all time to go ahead and say that out loud,” tweeted ProPublica journalist Jessica Huseman. “It’s followed by thousands of people and the homes they rank poorly are often owned by journalists making far less than a living wage who have a few hundred followers and I see no world in which that’s not punching down.”
In an interview, Huseman readily admitted that she enjoyed the account at first. “The first couple TV hits I got, it was exciting to see my mentions on Room Rater,” she said. “But now, the more I read their ratings, I think a lot of the people who end up getting not very good scores because they live in average apartments are journalists who might make $35,000 a year and are just trying their best during a pandemic. The more I thought about it, the grosser it felt.”
One of those local journalists is Georgia Public Radio political reporter and “Battleground: Ballot Box” podcast host Stephen Fowler, who was chagrined to find himself on the account – and suddenly facing a wave of insulting messages in his inbox.
“Anyone with negative comments about the 27-year-old public radio reporter’s WFH setup when he’s had *maybe* five total days off (including weekends) from working since the pandemic started is legally obligated to send me $, subscribe to my podcast+support a local news outlet,” Fowler tweeted. “Sorry I don’t live in NY/DC, am not in my 40s, don’t make a six-figure salary with a cable news contract, had to pay my way through school and drive a ’98 Buick, mean people of the internet already sending me emails and DMs!”
Fowler was excited to appear on CBSN and have his work appreciated, “and then this snarky, anonymous-ish Room Rater account comes in and invites all of these random people into my home to critique my setup,” he said in an interview. He’s quick to point out that he’s not upset about his score, which was a respectable seven out of 10. Rather, the whole thing felt emblematic of the divide between national and local outlets.
“I think the account does a disservice by highlighting the elitism in journalism and media,” Fowler said. “Because I don’t have the money that a New York Times or Washington Post reporter makes living in New York or D.C. I don’t have the fancy elitist decor behind me. Instead I have a $125 print of a Disney World Magic Kingdom matchbook and some photos of me and my wife.”
Taylor said the account tries finding people from all walks of life.
“We do not want the account to be lifestyles of the rich and famous,” he said. “We have top tens and strong nines from people of all socioeconomic backgrounds. We look for interesting rooms. We look for rooms with character, with personality. We look for rooms where the person has made just a little bit of effort. We don’t need to see the Hollywood elite, and we don’t want to hold anyone to that [standard].”
Heye, meanwhile, couldn’t explain Bush’s tweet but has only positive feelings towards the governor.
“I am and remain a Jeb Bush fan,” Heye said. “I didn’t know there was this whole debate about partisanship and all that [on Room Rater], and I’m not interested in any debate on it. I’m not sure why politics needs to invade every fiber of our being all the time.”
Heye’s biggest disappointment with the rating is the suggestion that he add a pillow to the couch – since he had just moved one off the couch for the appearance. He’d also like to note that the “port wine poster,” as Room Rater put it, is actually from Willi’s Wine Bar in Paris. He actually became friends with the owner, who saw the poster in a previous CNN International appearance.
After the controversy, Heye added, “I sent him this stuff, and said, ‘Look, your poster’s getting more prominence.'”