Something fun on a slow news morning that raises a recurring question:
Why does this newspaper have such difficulty with social media?
The rules aren’t that complicated. One: Be judicious in what you say. Your comments are visible to the public and thus you’re accountable for them, no matter how unfair that may seem to the publisher of the New York Times.
Two: Expect criticism, especially petty criticism. Especially gratuitously nasty petty criticism. If the worst you endure on a given day is being compared to a bedbug, you’ve had a good day in anomic, dystopian, smartphone-era America.
Three: Don’t punch down. Social media is populated by people who aren’t famous and don’t have large followings. If you’re one of the few who is, and does, it’ll be seen as thin skin at best and bullying at worst if you can’t resist responding to a jab.
And four: If you can’t abide by the first three rules, at least refrain from taking the dispute offline and into the personal sphere. Like, say, by trying to drag a critic’s boss into it.
And now the stage is set for the story of How Times Columnist Bret Stephens Quit Twitter:
This afternoon, I tweeted a brief joke about a well-known NYT op-Ed columnist.
It got 9 likes and 0 retweets. I did not @ him. He does not follow me.
He just emailed me, cc’ing my university provost. He is deeply offended that I called him a metaphorical bedbug.
— davekarpf (@davekarpf) August 27, 2019
Karpf is an associate professor at George Washington. Emailing a critic over a (very minor) insult is itself unusual — why not respond publicly if you’re irked? — but cc’ing the provost is a clear violation of Rule Four.
And inviting the guy to come to your house with his significant other and repeat the insult to your wife and kids is, ahhh, I don’t know. I don’t know what the rule is for that one since I haven’t seen it before. Rule Five: Don’t overreact, and if you do, don’t be weird about it.
Alright fine… here is the email: pic.twitter.com/A4E5I6CoB6
— davekarpf (@davekarpf) August 27, 2019
Addendum to Rule Five: “Being weird about it” includes quitting your account in a huff, which is what Stephens did this morning after Karpf published his email and it went viral.
He’s complained before that social media is bad for American politics, even claiming in a column two years ago that he was climbing out of the Twitter sewer and would let an assistant manage his account going forward. Fair enough, but then why go the extra mile to respond to Karpf’s insult? He knows putdowns are the coin of the realm online; even other journalists are reminding him of it today. Did Karpf’s jab get under his skin because Karpf is an academic and, in Stephens’s estimation, is supposed to be above that?
Another addendum to Rule Five: “Being weird about it” also includes going on national television to address the matter.
[email protected] on quitting Twitter after being called a “bedbug”:
“Analogizing people to insects is always wrong … Being analogized to insects goes back to a lot of totalitarian regimes in the past." pic.twitter.com/Iyh9PpK2HS
— Tom Elliott (@tomselliott) August 27, 2019
Reading “bedbug” in this context as some Nazi-ish attempt at dehumanization is Stephens’s feeble way of trying to enlarge the sin to justify his own overreaction. Here’s all Karpf meant with the “bedbug” thing:
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.”
If you wanted to get ugly and compare someone to vermin, “bedbug” isn’t the insult you’d choose. Stephens must realize that, but it’s easier to pretend that Karpf had crossed some sort of line than that he himself did.
The most interesting part of the clip, by the way, is how he rationalizes cc’ing Karpf’s provost. He wasn’t trying to get him in trouble, he claims, he just thinks employers have a right to know how their employees are engaging with the broader public. Laying aside the fact that that does sound like him trying to get Karpf in trouble, where does it leave us with the Times’s complaint yesterday about dastardly right-wing operatives combing through reporters’ social media posts to find embarrassing things they’ve said in the past? if Karpf’s boss should know what his professors are saying to people, shouldn’t Dean Baquet and the Sulzbergers know what their journalists are saying? You can answer yes or no in both cases but it has to be the same answer to each, right?