The Slatest

A Q&A With the Man Who Called Bret Stephens a Bedbug

Stephens, seated and holding a cup of coffee, is surrounded by images of bedbugs.
Left to right: Not Bret Stephens, not Bret Stephens, Bret Stephens, not Bret Stephens, not Bret Stephens.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by 3drenderings/iStock/Getty Images Plus and William B. Plowman/NBC/NBC NewsWire via Getty Images.

David Karpf is a professor of media and public affairs at George Washington University in D.C. On Monday night, he became a subject of great media interest himself after reading reports about the bedbug infestation at the New York Times and writing in a tweet that the bedbugs were perhaps a metaphor for the continuing presence, at the paper, of conservative columnist Bret Stephens. (Stephens has developed a reputation in certain circles for writing provocative but intellectually flimsy columns about climate change and the alleged threat of political intolerance on college campuses; Karpf, in addition to being an academic, is a former member of the Sierra Club board of directors.)

While the tweet might have seemed like an innocuous remark, Stephens apparently didn’t think so: He emailed Karpf—in a message with the subject line “From Bret Stephens, New York Times” on which George Washington provost Forrest Maltzman was CC’d—to accuse him of setting a “new standard” for online incivility and to challenge Karpf to “come to my home,” “meet my wife and kids,” and “call me a ‘bedbug’ to my face.” (Stephens wasn’t tagged in Karpf’s original post, so it wouldn’t have shown up in his Twitter notifications; he wrote in his email to Karpf that someone had “pointed out” the tweet to him.)

Karpf described Stephens’ email in a tweet without specifically naming the columnist, then, about an hour later, uploaded a screenshot of it that included Stephens’ name. The posts together created a frenzy of disbelief and derision that led Stephens to delete his own Twitter account, then, during a Tuesday morning appearance on MSNBC, to deny that he’d been trying to get Karpf in trouble with the university (Karpf, in any case, is tenured) and to claim that the “bedbug” remark resembled the kind of dehumanizing language that “totalitarian regimes” use toward ethnic outgroups. On Tuesday morning, I spoke to Karpf about the experience of being a viral figure and the state of bedbug discourse in the digital age. Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Ben Mathis-Lilley: How has it felt to be in the center of the media storm for the last day or so, particularly given that this is your area of study?

David Karpf: The two things that stand out are that it’s entertaining, and distracting. It does keep occurring to me the reason why this is actually pretty fun for me is that I’m a white guy with tenure, which means that—if he had sent this to me before I had a tenured job, that would have been a powerful and terrifying message, and I’m 100 percent sure that that’s what he expected it to do. When he writes a message where it says, “From Bret Stephens, New York Times,” from his New York Times account, it means that he’s trying to indicate that he’s above me in the social hierarchy. But I’m a professor of strategic political communication, and I have tenure, and I really didn’t do anything wrong. That makes the entire thing bizarre and fun. If I was pre-tenure or I was a woman and had to deal with harassment on Twitter all the time, then I imagine this would be a lot less fun.

The initial “bedbug” tweet initially got nine likes and zero retweets. At what point after you sent the tweet about Stephens’ response did you start to think, “Oh, wow, this is becoming a thing”?

When I sent the second tweet, what I expected was going to happen is other people in political science and political communication Twitter would guess at who it was and joke back and forth. I kind of figured that was going to lead to several dozen retweets and maybe even 200 likes. We’ve got the American Political Science Association meeting coming up, so I kind of figured that it was going to lead to a buddy of mine buying me a beer on Friday. Within about half an hour I realized, “OK, this is becoming a bigger thing.” And then it got really hilarious.

I think I looked at my phone at like 11, and it was everywhere. It was just a total explosion.

Yeah. I also should admit, one of the downsides here is that it’s real evidence that everyone else on Twitter is funnier than I am. Those freaking media edits are hilarious. I made a milquetoast joke that wasn’t one of the better New York Times newsroom bedbug jokes. And everybody else is funnier than me.

I want to walk through actually getting this email. When you saw that subject line, which is kind of almost like a self-parody of a self-important subject line, did you think, “This has got to be fake? This is someone pulling my leg?”

I’ve read that Deadspin article about the young Deadspin writer who had randomly hate-emailed Bret Stephens and Bret Stephens replied with his, like, overdramatic, patronizing response. My first thought was, “Is this a bit? This guy can’t be doing this all the time,” particularly because I didn’t email him, I didn’t @ him, like, how would he find this tweet? And then my next thought, “Oh, it’s from his New York Times email address. Oh, he CC’d the provost.” Then I knew it was real and also … this is the stuff I teach classes on, so the other thing I thought was, “Oh my God, this guy’s never heard of the Streisand effect. What an idiot.”

You can use this as a learning experience in your class.

Yeah. My class is on digital political communication. I usually open the class with about 15 minutes of talking about strategic mistakes that we’ve seen in the news recently and relating that to the readings. Yeah, I think we’ve got a real good one for that.

I think obviously one of the reasons it took off is because it’s not just like, “Hey, you called me a name and I’m mad about it.” It was this specific offer to come to his house and meet his family. What was your reaction to that?

If he hadn’t CC’d the provost, then I would think, “Wow, he took this far more personally than he should have.” But also that would mean that an op-ed writer from the New York Times was reaching out to me and wanted to discuss civility in the digital age. And I would have tried to reply to it and said, “First of all, is this a bit? I’m surprised you found this and were upset by it. But second of all, here’s the thinking behind it. Here’s why I thought it was a decent joke. And also here’s why I think it’s entirely appropriate because, being a public intellectual as you are, people get to make silly jokes about you on the internet like I did.”

But the fact that he was CCing the provost, and I assume that he doesn’t know I have tenure when he writes that message, means that he’s not actually asking, “Where is the civility?” He’s certainly not inviting me to come to his house and have this little conversation. What he’s trying to impress upon me is that he’s more powerful than me and I should feel fearful and ashamed.

What was your original intention with the bedbug metaphor?

The reasoning there is every time Bret Stephens writes an article, my Twitter feed explodes with people who find the article annoying, find it wrong, and keep talking about how you just can’t get rid of Bret Stephens.

This morning he was on MSNBC and he compared it to authoritarian rhetoric about extermination. What’s your response to that?

He is asking people—this isn’t even a matter of reading the full context. He’s asking people not to read all two sentences. A two-sentence tweet related to the topic of the New York Times having bedbugs in the newsroom. And one of the sentences is, “This is a metaphor.”

The thing that actually genuinely surprises me there is he doesn’t seem to realize that he made either an ethical mistake or a strategic mistake. I haven’t “dunked” on him here. I wrote a tweet that nobody read. It was a good tweet, but not one of my best and certainly not one of the best jokes about the New York Times having bedbugs.

And he apparently spends his Monday nights searching his name, not his handle, but his name on social media so he can lash out at people that have less power than him that say mean things about him. That means, A, he doesn’t understand the Streisand effect. Strategically, that’s dumb. But, B, it also means that he thinks by virtue of the power and privilege he has at the New York Times, he thinks by virtue of that that other people shouldn’t be allowed to criticize him.

And that’s what makes this a serious issue, because again, I don’t have to worry. I have tenure. And my university’s made it clear they have my back. And of course they do because I didn’t do anything wrong. But if this is something that he’s saying to me, this means that it’s also something that he thinks it’s appropriate to say to other people who have less power and authority than I do. And he’s going to abuse his privilege in that way, it makes the New York Times look terrible, and the New York Times ought to tell him to shut it down and get out.

They are just going through a period where this exact thing just happened, where an editor at the Times emailed a writer asking her to apologize to him and CC’d her publisher. It’s obviously something that should have been on Stephens’ radar.

Yeah. This is clearly a hobby of his. And the New York Times ought to be taking a side to explain that he needs to get a different hobby or get a different job. If they’re not, they need to have this conversation with him right away because this is an abuse of his power and authority. And he’s a grown-up. He ought to know better.

I am a much, much, much lesser known writer than him, but I don’t think that I would even have noticed that as an insult. I mean, I barely would have registered it.

He had to work hard to find it and then work even harder to actually get offended by it.

What is your feeling on Twitter overall?

I think Twitter is a big part of the discourse and so we have a responsibility to make it better. And that’s where, again, I come back to—this little episode has been fun, I’m very distracted, I have other work to do, but this is a fun way to spend a day for me, it’s a fun way to spend a day for all the people dunking on it. But it’s fun because I don’t have to fear for my job and also because as a white guy the hate mail that I’m going to get is much less than what I would get if it was one of my female colleagues. They would be dealing with much, much worse right now. Twitter is a big enough part of the discourse that we need it to get better. And while this isn’t an example of Twitter at its worst, this is Twitter on a good day, as people are pointing out, we still need to do work there.

Is that Twitter’s responsibility? Is that a broader social responsibility for everyone who uses it? What’s the mechanism there?

It’s both/and, but it’s largely Twitter’s responsibility. I should mention, a colleague of mine, Rebekah Tromble, is project lead on a major project with Twitter analyzing healthy conversations and trying to help them figure out what they can do to help promote healthier conversation on Twitter. That is the area of research expertise of the person whose office is right next door to mine.

That’s fantastic. And your provost, the infamous provost, did respond to Stephens.

He wrote a response this morning thanking Stephens for getting in touch, reminding him that as an academic my opinions are my own and GW is committed to academic freedom and free speech. He’s also invited him, if he’d like to come to campus to speak about civil discourse in the digital age, then he’s welcome to. I’d be happy to have the conversation at GW if he’d like to. If he wants to come down to GW and sit on a stage with me and talk about civil discourse in the digital age, that’s one of the things I write about.

Obviously campus speech is a main area of his, so of course one would have expected if he were going to be intellectually consistent that he would have known all of that already.

The irony here is so obvious that I’m shocked that he’s not aware of it.

Do you think that the rule that you should be able to say something you say online to someone’s face—as an expert in this area—is that a good rule? I mean, is that a necessary rule?

I think it’s OK as a rule of thumb. And it’s not OK more broadly than that because, again, we have to think about power imbalances.

Many people would not speak to him that way if they were to see him in person because that situation would be marked by those imbalances.

Right. And there’s two pieces. One is that many people wouldn’t say it to him because the power imbalances. But more importantly is that many people couldn’t. I personally will not be in that situation where I can say to Bret Stephens at some cocktail party, “Hey, when I think about the bedbugs in the New York Times newsroom, ha ha. I think that’s kind of like you, buddy.” I don’t run in his social circles. And he’s constructed a social circle where he doesn’t have to face that.

He said in the MSNBC interview that he didn’t want to get you in trouble, he just wanted your “manager” to see how you behave online.

That works at the sentence level and not at the paragraph level. Because sentence one is, “I didn’t mean him to get in trouble.” And then what? Sentence three is, “I think his manager should be aware of things that he says online.” Those two sentences are in tension with each other is what I would tell him if he was writing this for me as a paper. And by the way, he’d also get at best a B in his crisis response here.

What should he have done?

If I was advising him, I would tell him to say that he had an embarrassing moment online and then change the subject. He had a bad night. He decided to email some random guy on Twitter. It hasn’t gone well for him and now he’s stepping away from Twitter. Just say that and move on.