Name-calling really got under this New York Times columnist’s skin.
David Karpf, an associate professor of media and public affairs at George Washington University, did just that Monday when he branded Bret Stephens, 45, a “metaphorical bedbug” when news broke that the insects were spotted in the Gray Lady’s second-floor wellness room.
“The bedbugs are a metaphor,” Karpf joked. “The bedbugs are Bret Stephens.”
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Karpf noted that his tweet didn’t make much of an impact at first — getting 9 likes and 0 retweets — but that all changed after Stephens turned tough guy and emailed Karpf and his provost, saying he was “deeply offended” by the wisecrack.
“I’m often amazed about the things supposedly decent people are prepared to say about other people — people they’ve never met — on Twitter,” Stephens wrote Karpf. “I think you’ve set a new standard.”
Stephens then invited Karpf, along with his “significant other,” to expound on his quip in person.
“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,” Stephens continued. “That would take some genuine courage and intellectual integrity on your part. I promise to be courteous no matter what you have to say.”
Stephens even suggested that the visit might make Karpf “feel better” about himself, adding that it was a standing invitation.
The exchange prompted a litany of bedbug-related memes and images on both Karpf’s and Stephens’ timeline, including a mockup of a garage with the Times columnist’s invitation written in blood that was liked more than 7,300 times.
By early Tuesday, both Stephens’ name and #BretBug were trending on Twitter — and the columnist had deactivated his account.
In another, Stephens was shown as the author of a satirical column titled “I Am Not a Bedbug, And I’m Telling Your Provost,” complete with a detailed diagram of the life cycle of the bedbug.
A message seeking comment from a Times spokesperson and Stephens was not immediately returned early Tuesday. But in an email to the Washington Post, Stephens said his message to Karpf “speaks for itself.” He also appeared on MSNBC to further clarify his reaction to Karpf’s tweet.
“I think that kind of rhetoric is dehumanizing and totally unacceptable no matter where it comes from,” Stephens said Tuesday. “I had no intention whatsoever to get him in any kind of professional trouble. But it is the case at the New York Times and other institutions that people should be aware, managers should be aware, of the way in which their people, their professors or journalists interact with the rest of the world. That’s certainly the case with me at the New York Times.”
Karpf, for his part, said Stephens made a mistake by contacting his supervisor over the lighthearted jab.
“He not only thinks I should be ashamed of what I wrote, he thinks that I should also get in trouble for it,” Karpf told the Washington Post. “That’s an abuse of power.”
Karpf also doubled down on his bedbug one-liner, again invoking the term that set Stephens off while accusing him of writing “pretty lightweight, poorly researched” columns on topics that he knows well, like climate change.
“So I’ve always seen him as this person that everyone complains about but we just can’t get rid of,” Karpf told the Washington Post. “He’s a bedbug.”