In August, news broke about a possible bedbug infestation at The New York Times. David Karpf, associate professor at George Washington University, tweeted in response to the story that ‘The bedbugs are a metaphor. The bedbugs are Bret Stephens” – a New York Times op-ed columnist, who Karpf later clarified, “is irritating and impossible to remove.”
When discussing the ever-expanding role Twitter plays in our society, the light mockery of public figures is far from the most harm the platform can do. Comparisons to bedbugs rank mildly.
Not for Stephens, however, who sent an email to both Karpf and his University provost, calling on Karpf to show up at his house and call him a bedbug to his face. This action was followed by Stephens making an appearance on MSNBC to complain about Karpf's treatment of him, referencing the argument in his latest NYT column and then deleting his Twitter account.
No one is immune from criticism, including and especially journalists. Whether it’s major or minor, individuals with a public platform have a responsibility to allow criticism and debate from their audience.
It doesn’t matter whether Karpf’s comment was justified. Whether Karpf is a funnyman or troll, Stephens didn’t just call him out for the comment, he attempted to get Karpf’s superiors involved in the petty argument instigated only by him.
As Karpf says in the article he penned for Esquire, “…he was trying to send a message that he stands above people like me in the status hierarchy, and that people like me are not supposed to write mean jokes about people like him online. It was an exercise in wielding power.”
Twitter is rife with commentary; it’s the nature of the internet at large. Beyond that, Twitter is a political vehicle where a significant amount of our public discourse takes place. Journalists in particular need Twitter in order to share and circulate their stories. Twitter has certainly helped Bret Stephens get attention, positive or negative. Stephens also has the social capital of a NYT journalist, and he used that power to ridicule Karpf directly to his employer.
Journalists must approach their work with thicker skin than Stephens showed in this situation. The platform that comes with being a published journalist elevates an individual’s voice, and that is a capability that journalists cannot take lightly.
It is the journalist’s job to either incorporate or dismiss criticism depending on its value, and then work to do better regardless, without letting ego interfere. It is not a journalist’s job to drag on a petty fight based on little tangible insult.