Bret Stephens appeared on MSNBC Tuesday morning and defended his outraged response to being called a “bed bug” by a Twitter critic.
Anchor Chris Jansing noted that the neoconservative New York Times columnist had deactivated his Twitter account that morning after Dave Karpf, a media and public affairs professor at George Washington University, compared him to the insect. When she asked Stephens to comment on the “controversy,” he responded by decrying the term “bed bug” as “dehumanizing” and “totally unacceptable.”
“All I would say is that using dehumanizing rhetoric like ‘bed bugs’ or analogizing people to insects is always wrong,” he said. “We can do better, we should be the people on social media that we are in real life.”
“I would agree with that final statement for sure,” said Jansing, who last week earned conservative ire for calling the gender binary “incendiary.”
However, she went on to subtly join in the widespread mockery of Stephens for his response to Karpf.
“Is that the worst thing that you have ever been called on social media?” she asked, smiling incredulously.
Stephens, who is Jewish, did not look amused. He seemed to double down on the suggestion that it was anti-Semitic to call him a “bed bug,” apparently referring to historical comparisons of Jews to insects by the Nazis and others.
“There is a bad history of being called, of being analogized to insects that goes back to a lot of totalitarian regimes in the past,” he said. “I’ve been called worse. I wrote this guy a personal note. Now, it’s out there for everyone to see.
Bret Stephens was mocked before coming on MSNBC
Karpf metaphorically compared Stephens to a bed bug in a Monday night tweet. He later told the Washington Post that he saw news of an infestation of The New York Times building in Manhattan as an opportunity to take a shot at his least favorite Times columnist.
The bedbugs are a metaphor. The bedbugs are Bret Stephens. https://t.co/k4qo6QzIBW
— davekarpf (@davekarpf) August 26, 2019
According to Karpf, his tweet had just nine likes and zero retweets when he received the surprise email from Stephens, which copied his provost at George Washington University. In the message, the Pulitzer Prize-winning commentator challenged Karpf to repeat the “bed bugs” insult “to my face” in front of “my wife and kids.”
“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, according to screen shots shared by Karpf. “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.”
Alright fine… here is the email: pic.twitter.com/A4E5I6CoB6
— davekarpf (@davekarpf) August 27, 2019
On MSNBC, Stephens defended his email etiquette, including cc’ing the provost. He insisted to Jansing that he had “no intention whatsoever to get [Karpf] 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,” he said.
Whatever his intent, as a vocal skeptic of both President Donald Trump and climate change, Stephens found little support from either side of political Twitter. Instead, he was deluged with bipartisan derision allegedly overreacting to a mild dig from Karpf.
Many liberals noted that Stephens seemed pretty sensitive for self-proclaimed free speech champion and melter of “snowflakes.”
Free speech for me, but not for thee
—Bret Stephens, NYT bedbug pic.twitter.com/GVGu8UJpVk
— Hilary Agro ? (@hilaryagro) August 27, 2019
Fox News host Laura Ingraham was among the conservatives who were inclined to agree.
Dish it out but can’t take it Dept: Bret Stephens was upset that some professor called him a “bedbug” on twitter, so he sent him a personal note to complain (and a dinner invite) and cc’d his Provost. pic.twitter.com/NtTjmixsn9
— Laura Ingraham (@IngrahamAngle) August 27, 2019
Some liberals, meanwhile, indulged the logic of identity politics even as they mocked it.
Imagine if Bret Stephens had to endure a tiny fraction of the hateful comments that women and POC—even total civilians—get #onhere.
— Clara Jeffery (@ClaraJeffery) August 27, 2019
After hours of ridicule, Stephens on Tuesday morning departed Twitter with a final sermon.
“Twitter is a sewer. It brings out the worst in humanity,” he said. “I sincerely apologize for any part I’ve played in making it worse, and to anyone I’ve ever hurt. Thanks to all of my followers, but I’m deactivating this account.”
Stephens has previously sent an angry email to at least one other Twitter critic: a Deadspin writer, who last year also promptly shared the exchange with the world.
Earlier this month, the Times demoted another prominent journalist, editor Jonathan Weisman, after he wrote tweets criticized as racist. Weisman emailed author and Times contributor Roxane Gay to demand an “enormous apology” after she called him out.
Gay on Tuesday identified a trend.
These NYT employees sure do love calling the manager
— roxane gay (@rgay) August 27, 2019
The New York Times did not immediately respond to a request for comment.