New York Times columnist Bret Stephens created quite a stir with his reaction to a critic on social media.
David Karpf, an associate professor of media and public affairs at George Washington University, had responded to a Twitter post about an apparent bedbug infestation at the New York Times.
“The bedbugs are a metaphor,” he wrote. “The bedbugs are Bret Stephens.”
Stephens got wind of the insult, and he decided to respond. He fired off an email to Karpf.
“I’m often amazed about the things supposedly decent people are prepared to say about other people — people they’ve never met — on Twitter,” he wrote. “I think you’ve set a new standard. 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.”
Karpf, of course, responded on Twitter.
“This afternoon, I tweeted a brief joke about a well-known NYT op-Ed columnist,” he wrote. “It got 9 likes and 0 retweets. I did not @ him. He does not follow me.”
Still, he noted, Stephens tracked him down, sending that email with a copy to Karpf’s provost. Stephens, he said, was “deeply offended that I called him a metaphorical bedbug.”
That tweet, of course, went viral, and Stephens quickly found himself the butt of thousands of jokes. When it was all said and done, Karpf had emerged as a star of the internet and Stephens had abandoned Twitter.
I can understand how it happened.
Stephens was minding his own business, just getting through his day when out of the blue some guy called him a bedbug.
“What was that all about?” he no doubt wondered. “What in the world did I do to deserve such an insult?”
Every columnist has been there. We’ve all heard from the occasional angry reader. It comes with the territory.
A columnist’s job is to toss out an opinion and let the readers have at it. Sometimes the resulting criticism is fair. Sometimes it’s not.
Now and then, I’m tempted to engage a reader in debate, but I generally hold my tongue.
“You’ve had your say,” my old boss once told me. “Let the readers have theirs.”
I try to follow that advice. I thank my critics for their feedback and move on.
One of my favorite examples came soon after I arrived in Galveston, Texas. The community was embroiled in controversy over an annual spring break weekend. College students poured onto the island in such numbers that traffic literally ground to a halt.
The city’s main thoroughfares turned into parking lots, and college kids literally danced in the streets.
Months later, residents were still up in arms, insisting the city put together a better strategy ahead of the next year’s event.
The city manager suggested a saturation plan. Officials would station themselves at the entrance to the city, and when traffic reached a predetermined level, they’d start turning cars around.
I thought that was a terrible idea. Galveston was a tourist town, I wrote, and a plan built on turning away tourists seemed short-sighted.
The city manager responded with his own guest column.
“If anybody’s short-sighted,” he said, “it’s Kelly Hawes.”
Not long afterward, the city manager and I found ourselves seated on opposite sides of a table at a meeting of the Rotary Club. I thought about saying I could hardly see him over there because I was a bit short-sighted, but I resisted the temptation.
Stephens probably should have done the same.