Exclusive Interview: How a Throwaway Joke Made a New York Times Columnist Quit Twitter

Even though Professor Dave Karpf teaches a lecture titled “So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed on Twitter” in his Strategic Communication class at George Washington University, he never imagined a throwaway joke about a New York Times columnist would catapult him into the middle of a viral news story. 

When news broke that The Times’s newsroom had a bedbug infestation, Twitter users on the professor’s radar were brainstorming the most sassy spinoff for their followers. In passing, Karpf posted the snarkiest thing that came to mind: “The bed bugs are a metaphor. The bed bugs are Bret Stephens.” The tweet originally garnered only 9 likes and no retweets.

A couple hours later, Karpf noticed an email that had been cc’d to his provost titled “From Bret Stephens, New York Times”. The message called Karpf out on his comment, inviting him to “call [Stephens] a bed bug to his face.”

Karpf proceeded to tweet about the instance, ultimately posting the letter for the world to scrutinize. The controversy went viral, with users creating memes that got the hashtag trending on Twitter.

This was all a great late night Monday joke. It probably would’ve lingered just a few more hours into Tuesday, had Stephens not gone on MSNBC to announce he was permanently logging off of Twitter as a result of the backlash.

Karpf then published a series of op-eds and interviews with publications ranging from Los Angeles Times and Esquire to more specialized podcasts like Electing to Drink and Sh!tpost. Just as Twitter was moving onto the next internet sensation, Stephens again revitalized the story on Friday with an op-ed in The Times railing against the “rhetoric of infestation” Karpf was invoking.

That changed things. Karpf didn’t take the comparison lightly, writing that Stephens should not have used his powerful platform to equate a joke to Nazi propaganda. Karpf added that the entire debacle was never about urging civility, as Stephens had claimed, but about exercising power.

“Stephens tried to use his social position at the New York Times to punish me for joking about him,” Karpf wrote. “Instead of apologizing when that gambit blew up in his face, he invented an entirely new rationale to justify his overreaction.”

In an exclusive interview with MediaFile, Karpf discussed the very serious lessons that can be learned from this rather unserious incident:

MediaFile: What are your feelings about this controversy from the other side?

Karpf: This was surprisingly fun. It was exhausting, and the New York Times article didn’t feel great, but there’s something unique about finding yourself in the middle of a social media storm, when everyone on social media is actually on your side. I think this would have been way worse if it had been a different conservative columnist. Stephens is disliked by conservatives because of his never Trump position, so I got barely any hate mail or threats.

MF: Do you think this controversy was a waste of time or has political discourse gained something from it?

Karpf: 80/20. I think this episode was mostly light, airy fun (until he took it too far with that NYT column). I think part of the reason it got so big is that people enjoyed spending a news cycle on something small for once. I think there’s also some social value though. Stephens was trying to use his position of authority to punish me. It turned out badly for him. I think that sends a signal to other men who like to abuse their authority that things can spiral out of control for them fast.

MF: Do you think that the Internet explicitly is helping corrode structural power hierarchies?

Karpf: Corrode is a good word for it. The internet isn’t leveling or erasing old power structures. But it provides a set of tools that can make them a bit more rickety. He still has his column. He still has all the structural power he had before. But he thought he was having one type of conversation (with me and my bosses), and I was able to use digital media to turn it into another type of conversation.

MF: What’s your take on Stephen’s mentality through this episode?

Karpf: I’m not a psychoanalyst, and I’m certainly not *his* psychoanalyst, but my dimestore analysis is that he has a strict view of social hierarchy. He is among the elite, others are not. People below him are not supposed to make fun, or should only do so in socially appropriate ways. Because that’s a challenge to the social hierarchy. Stephens lashed out at Samer Kalaf because he viewed Kalaf as below him in a social hierarchy, and he wanted to instruct him in the *proper* way to behave. Same with his email to me. He wanted to instruct me in the ways of civil discourse.

MF: Do you think Bret Stephens’ hypocrisy is unique or characteristic of many political columnists in this day and age?

Karpf: I think this is pretty Stephens-specific. My understanding is [that] he has a habit of sending these nastygrams to people and their bosses. I don’t think it’s baked into punditry. I think it’s what you get when someone decides that they deserve their high social status, and invest their energy into making sure everyone else agrees. That’s also part of why this went so badly for him — a big chunk of the media world saw this and said “really? You sent that email over that insult? You should see the stuff I ignore every day.” Why would he grow a thicker skin? He spent 11 years facing no consequences for his behavior–and was rewarded with a Pulitzer and a sweet NYT gig along the way.

MF: What do you think the New York Times should do about this situation?

Karpf: The Times should suspend him at a minimum. I didn’t think that before [last] Friday’s column. Before Friday, I thought they should take him aside, slap his wrist, and tell him to stop sending emails like that from his NYT account. That, plus the online mockery, seemed appropriate to me. But then he used his column to pursue a petty vendetta against an online critic. This isn’t a matter of viewpoint diversity anymore. The Times wants to have conservative writers on its Op-Ed page. Sure, that’s fine. But there has to be some lower threshold of quality. If the Times isn’t going to do anything but copy-edit its opinion writers, then the Times also has to send signals that the Op-Ed page isn’t the place for your personal vendettas. James Bennett should be embarrassed by the Friday column. He ought to suspend or fire Stephens, to send the message that the Times expects higher quality work from its columnists.

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