Modern journalism is rough, y’all. The industry is under constant financial pressure from the transition to the internet and our divisive current political climate means that your writing is likely to irritate people, who might track you down online and harass you with vicious, threatening words…like comparing you to a tiny insect.
Yesterday, Dave Karpf, an associate professor at George Washington University, tweeted a little joke in response to a story about bedbugs infesting the New York Times newsroom, saying that the bedbugs were a metaphor for Bret Stephens, a conservative NYT columnist. Stephens has drawn ire from both sides of the aisle on occasion, with those on the right annoyed at his criticism of President Donald Trump and more moderate views on issues like gun control, and those on the left annoyed in general at the designated token conservative the NYT allows on their opinion pages.
The bedbugs are a metaphor. The bedbugs are Bret Stephens. https://t.co/k4qo6QzIBW
— davekarpf (@davekarpf) August 26, 2019
Originally, the tweet was virtually unnoticed in the firehose of daily mayhem that is Twitter. As Karpf noted, it had zero retweets and nine likes…until Stephens got involved.
Stephens was apparently so incensed about Karpf’s bedbug joke that he emailed him and copied Karpf’s university provost (his boss) to complain.
This afternoon, I tweeted a brief joke about a well-known NYT op-Ed columnist.
It got 9 likes and 0 retweets. I did not @ him. He does not follow me.
He just emailed me, cc’ing my university provost. He is deeply offended that I called him a metaphorical bedbug.
— davekarpf (@davekarpf) August 27, 2019
Alright fine… here is the email: pic.twitter.com/A4E5I6CoB6
— davekarpf (@davekarpf) August 27, 2019
“I’m often amazed about the things supposedly decent people are prepared to say about other people — people they’ve never met — on Twitter. I think you’ve set a new standard,” wrote Stephens.
This is all over one little joke comparing him to a bedbug.
Continued Stephens: “I would welcome the opportunity for you to come to my home, meet my wife and kids, talk to us for a few minutes, and then call me a ‘bedbug’ to my face. That would take some genuine courage and intellectual integrity on your part.”
Does he want to fight Karpf? So bizarre.
Karpf was understandably irritated that Stephens had tried to tattle to his boss, and posted the email on Twitter, where it quickly went viral. The original tweet has now been retweeted nearly four thousand times, with nearly twenty-five thousand likes, and Karpf’s tweet with Stephens’ email has been shared even more.
Stephens was on MSNBC this morning and attempted to defend his histrionics, calling Karpf’s tweet “dehumanizing and totally unacceptable,” and claiming he wasn’t actually trying to get him in professional trouble by tattling to his boss, he just felt that “managers should be aware of the way in which their people, their professors or journalists, interact with the rest of the world.”
Wow. A friend just sent this to me
Bret Stephens was asked about the Bedbug controversy on MSNBC by @ChrisJansing
Bret says he wasn’t trying to get @davekarpf in any professional trouble when he copied his provost on the email he sent him.
— Yashar Ali 🐘 (@yashar) August 27, 2019
Bedbugs are a nuisance and difficult and expensive to eradicate, if you know anyone who’s had the misfortune of dealing with an infestation. But when viewed in comparison to the constant cesspool that is the online world these days, “bedbug” is just not something that should get any sort of response, certainly not a tattling email to one’s boss.
As many people pointed out, every single female journalist has to deal with far worse than getting called “bedbug” if they’re active on social media at all. I’m pretty sure someone called me worse than “bedbug” just today, and if I scrolled through the accounts I’ve blocked or muted, I could find stuff that would really light Stephens’ hair on fire. I haven’t tried to get any of those people fired, though.
The kerfuffle has proved to be too much for Stephens to handle, and he deactivated his Twitter account earlier today.
The whole incident is just exploding with irony, coming the same week as the Times complained about conservative activists highlighting controversial and racist tweets from their journalists in an attempt to cause professional consequences for them. Stephens had a meltdown over a silly and inconsequential joke that originally was seen by maybe a few dozen people, and tried to end a man’s career over it.
His excuses ring hollow — Stephens had no prior connection or interaction with Karpf or his provost before this incident and there was no reason to include the provost on the email except to hope that it would cause trouble for Karpf at work.
It’s time we rename the Streisand Effect in honor of Bret “Bedbug” Stephens. The Streisand Effect, as you probably know, is named for what happens when an attempt to silence a critic or censor information draws far more attention than if you had just left it alone. The term was coined after Barbra Streisand sued a photographer for publishing photos of her Malibu, California home.
But what Stephens has done here far surpasses Streisand on an exponential scale. Streisand is a rich celebrity and the fact she has a very expensive Malibu home isn’t exactly news. The specific location was public record and other photos were already available. Stephens, on the other hand, dug up a lonely little tweet that whispered by for a moment on Twitter, turned it into a still-trending topic, and probably earned himself a new nickname. He may end up getting called “Bedbug” for the rest of his life.
If we can take any lessons from this whole misadventure, perhaps it can highlight the absurdity and potential abuse of trying to get someone fired for their social media activity. If you have clear evidence someone is committing fraud or putting people in danger, by all means, contact their boss — or better yet, the police if it’s an actual crime! — but if it’s just a mean tweet, roll your eyes and move the heck on with your life.
I’m sure Bedbug Stephens wished he had.
Follow Sarah Rumpf on Twitter: @rumpfshaker.