NYT’s Bret Stephens quits Twitter after spat over ‘bedbug’ insult
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NYT’s Bret Stephens quits Twitter after spat over ‘bedbug’ insult

Free speech advocate faces backlash after emailing social media user’s boss to complain about jab, inviting tweeter to face-to-face meeting

Bret Stephens. (Jason Smith via JTA)
Bret Stephens. (Jason Smith via JTA)

New York Times columnist and former Jerusalem Post editor-in-chief Bret Stephens has quit Twitter and sparked a debate on free speech online, after engaging with a user who had jokingly compared him to a bedbug.

After the Times’ Stuart A. Thompson tweeted on Monday that the paper’s newsroom was infested with bedbugs, Dave Karpf, an associate professor at George Washington University, tweeted that “the bedbugs are a metaphor. The bedbugs are Bret Stephens.”

In response, Stephens emailed Karpf, copying his university’s provost, to complain and invite him for a face-to-face meeting.

“Someone just pointed out a tweet you wrote about me, calling me a ‘bedbug.’ I’m often amazed at 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.

“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. I promise to be courteous no matter what you have to say. Maybe it will make you feel better about yourself. Please consider this a standing invitation. You are more than welcome to bring your significant other.”

Karpf subsequently tweeted a screenshot of the email, noting “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.”

A number of journalists and prominent media personalities lambasted Stephens, noting his past criticism of “safe spaces” and writing about the “necessity of discomfort.”

Journalist Yashar Ali tweeted that he had received “literal death threats from people and I haven’t taken the time to track down and email their bosses” while ProPublica’s Jessica Huseman commented that she welcomed him “to read my emails, in which I’m regularly referred to as a c**t, a bitch and a whore.”

Science reporter Erin Biba tweeted that she had “been called a c**t and gotten death threats and told I should die in a gas chamber and belong in a concentration camp and never once sent an email to anyone’s boss let alone one this absolutely sniveling and thin skinned.”

Gary Legum of online news site Contemptor took a different tack, suggesting that Stephens was a “member of a race of giant bedbugs who live among us and disguise themselves by wearing human skin suits but get really offended if anyone insults them.”

One Jewish user, meanwhile, quipped that “calling Bret Stephens a bedbug is definitely going to be considered antisemitic by week’s end…. so I’d like to urge everyone now to definitely not call him a poodle-pug-dachsund-pinscher because that too would definitely be an antisemitic slur.”

Hours later, Stephens announced he would be deactivating his Twitter account, writing: “Time to do what I long ago promised to do. Twitter is a sewer. It brings out the worst in humanity. I sincerely apologize for any part I’ve played in making it worse, and to anyone I’ve ever hurt. Thanks to all my followers, but I’m deactivating this account.”

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