The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A professor called Bret Stephens a ‘bedbug.’ The New York Times columnist complained to the professor’s boss.

New York Times columnist Bret Stephens sent an email to a George Washington University professor and his provost to complain about a tweet comparing him to a "bedbug." (Pulitzer Prize Board/Associated Press)

The tweet seemed harmless enough to David Karpf. The associate professor of media and public affairs at George Washington University took a story that bedbugs had infested the New York Times newsroom as an occasion to dig at his least favorite Times writer, the conservative columnist Bret Stephens.

“The bedbugs are a metaphor,” Karpf wrote on Monday. “The bedbugs are Bret Stephens.”

The tweet got nine likes and zero retweets, Karpf said. So the professor was surprised when an email from Stephens popped a few hours later.

He noticed that his provost at GWU was copied on the email. And Stephens was furious.

“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,” Stephens wrote. “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.”

The exchange quickly went viral after Karpf posted Stephens’s full email to Twitter, leading to waves of backlash against a columnist whose contrarian takes on climate change and race have prompted canceled subscriptions and pointed questions for his editors in the past.

The professor said Stephens’s decision to email his superior at GWU with his complaints was an inappropriate attack from a writer with one of the highest-profile platforms in journalism.

“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 his power.”

In an email to The Post hours after his missive went viral, Stephens said that his message to Karpf “speaks for itself.”

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But Tuesday morning, Stephens appeared on MSNBC to address the incident further.

He called the Karpf’s bedbugs tweet “dehumanizing and totally unacceptable” and said he invited Karpf to his home to see if the professor would call him a bedbug to his face — because, Stephens said, “a lot of things people say on social media aren’t the things they’re really prepared to say in one-on-one interactions.”

He also explained why he had copied the provost on the email, saying that he did not want to get Karpf in professional trouble, but that “managers should be aware of the way in which their people, their professors or journalists, interact with the rest of the world.”

“Using dehumanizing rhetoric like bedbugs or analogizing people to insects is always wrong,” Stephens said. “We can do better. We should be the people on social media that we are in real life.”

Stephens also deactivated his Twitter account on Tuesday, writing that the platform “is a sewer. It brings out the worst in humanity. I sincerely apologize for any part I’ve played in making it worse, and to anyone I’ve ever hurt.”

The message disappeared when Stephens deactivated his account, but he confirmed to The Post that he had left Twitter.

A spokesperson for the Times didn’t immediately respond to a message about the columnist’s exchange with the professor.

This month, the Times demoted another prominent journalist, Jonathan Weisman, who formerly edited congressional coverage for the paper’s Washington bureau, after he wrote tweets criticized as racist and then emailed author and Times contributor Roxane Gay to demand an “enormous apology” after she called him out.

On MSNBC, Stephens acknowledged that his editors at the Times pay attention to what he says and that he had been rightly called to account in the past.

Stephens has courted controversy since joining the Times in 2017 after working as deputy editorial page editor at the Wall Street Journal, where he won a Pulitzer Prize. His first column, which critics labeled “climate-change denialism,” led some notable climate scientists to cancel their Times subscriptions in protest.

Extinction Rebellion, the group behind the ongoing demonstrations in London, has mobilized thousands across the globe to protest climate change. (Video: Drea Cornejo/The Washington Post)

Others took him to task for his past work at the Journal, where he called the “campus rape epidemic” an “imaginary enemy” and suggested that anti-Semitism was “the disease of the Arab mind,” as The Post’s Ruth Marcus reported.

He also has been known to hit back hard at critics, as when he wrote a long email to a Deadspin writer who had slammed his work — a response also posted in full to the Web.

Karpf said he has found Stephens’s research wanting, particularly in his columns on climate change — a subject the professor is well acquainted with as a former Sierra Club board member and longtime activist. So when he read on Monday that bedbugs had been found on the second, third and fourth floors of the Times newsroom, he couldn’t resist poking fun at Stephens.

“He tends to write pretty lightweight, poorly researched columns about things that I know something about,” Karpf said. “So I’ve always seen him as this person that everyone complains about but we just can’t get rid of. He’s a bedbug.”

Karpf sent out his tweet just after 5 p.m., thinking it was a “subtle but funny joke.” He decided against tagging Stephens, worrying that might be “rude,” he said, so it’s not clear how it caught the columnist’s attention. In his email, Stephens says that “someone just pointed out a tweet you wrote about me,” but the tweet had gotten so little engagement that Karpf was surprised that he had seen it.

“You need to work very hard to find a tweet that obscure, and then work harder to find the writer’s email and their provost’s email to CC them, too,” he said.

If Stephens hadn’t included his boss on the email, the tenured professor said, he would have been happy to talk.

“I would have treated this as an opportunity for conversation and dialogue if he hadn’t CC’d my provost,” he said, “which was clearly an attempt to threaten me with punishment.”

In an interview with Slate, Karpf said the ensuing media frenzy has been “entertaining, and distracting.” He said his own job security is one of the reasons Stephens’ attempted intimidation fell flat.

“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," Karpf said. "...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.”

On Tuesday afternoon, the university’s official Twitter account shared a letter to Stephens from Provost Forrest Maltzman, saying that Karpf’s “opinions are his own” and that the professor “speaks for himself.”

“Our commitment to academic freedom and free speech are integral to GW’s mission,” Maltzman wrote.

The provost then invited Stephens to campus “to speak about civil discourse in the digital age.”

In the Slate interview, Karpf said he’d happily talk with Stephens if he came to the university.

“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,” Karpf said.

Earlier, he told The Post, he’d want to talk about the tenor of Twitter comments, but also about power and how to appropriately wield it.

“But I assume he won’t want to talk,” Karpf said. "He ought to be embarrassed.”

But the exchange wasn’t a total waste for Karpf.

“I teach strategic political communication,” he said, “and we will certainly be talking about this case in my class on Wednesday.”

Reis Thebault contributed to this report.

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