An Interview with the Man Whose Bedbug Joke Made Bret Stephens Lose His Mind


New York Times op-ed columnist Bret Stephens has long seemed thin-skinned, but it now appears that skin might actually be more like an insect shell casing. If you suggest this, though, you better do it to his goddamn face, at his home, in front of his wife and children. OR ELSE.

Such was the lesson learned on Monday night by Dr. David Karpf, an associate professor in the School of Media and Public Affairs at George Washington University. Karpf, upon hearing that the New York Times newsroom had bedbugs, decided to make a funny tweet.

“The bedbugs are a metaphor,” he tweeted. “The bedbugs are Bret Stephens.”

The joke was objectively kind of funny, and Karpf was proud of it. “Bedbugs are a pain in the ass and hard to get rid of and everybody complains a lot about them, which is kind of like how my Twitter timeline always reacts to every Bret Stephens column,” he told Splinter in an interview.

Sadly, the tweet only netted nine likes, and no retweets. But it turns out that was enough traction for Stephens, who was so enraged Karpf called him a bedbug on Twitter that he emailed Karpf, CCed his provost (apparently complaining to the manager is standard procedure at the Paper of Record) and invited him to his home so Karpf could call him a bedbug in person like a gentleman.

Naturally, Karpf tweeted out the email:

“If he’d sent that just to me, I would probably send him a reply explaining, ‘Look, it’s a joke, you’re a public intellectual and that means people get to make silly jokes about you, good day sir,’” Karpf told Splinter. “But he CCed my provost, which is an offensive power move. So I felt the most appropriate thing to do was to share on Twitter, ‘Look, a thin-skinned writer at the New York Times didn’t like a tweet that I wrote that got 0 retweets and 9 likes, and he CCed the provost, and now here we are.’”

Indeed, Karpf—who has tenure, and does not expect the provost will be all that bothered about his bedbug joke—did a public service by revealing that Stephens’s greatest fear is to be called a bedbug on Twitter. In fact, Stephens’s reaction seems so unreasonably strong, I am starting to suspect he is an actual, and not metaphorical, bedbug and is merely horrified to have been found out?

Let’s see what Wikipedia has to say about it:

Checks out!

Karpf has his own theories about why Stephens emailed him. “I assume the thing that set him off here is that I’m a white guy with a PhD, and I think it offends his sensibility that fellow upper-standing white guys are saying mean things about him,” he said. “I guess there’s some power structure he thinks I violated.”

It also sounds like Karpf won’t take Stephens up on his invitation to come to his house and call him a bedbug in front of his loved ones. “I have an actual job that keeps me busy. I don’t get to spend all day Google-searching my name or accepting passive-aggressive dinner invitations,” he told Splinter.

Do note that Stephens is now aware that the entire Internet thinks he’s a bedbug. “He wrote a followup email to me after seeing this go viral, which just said, ‘Dear Dr. Karpf, you’re a real piece of work,’” Karpf said. But not as much work as bedbugs, which take multiple visits from a pest control operator and a small lifetime of laundering to eradicate for good.

On Tuesday morning, Stephens appeared to concede that he’d lost the argument, announcing that he was getting off Twitter forever.

Best of luck to the New York Times.

Correction, 9:16 a.m. ET: This post has been updated to clarify that Stephens merely offered to have Karpf come to his house and call him a bedbug in front of his wife and children. He did not also offer Karpf a meal, as the post initially said.

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