The Pitiful Tale of Bret Stephens, the Two-Line Tweet and Becoming This Week’s Media Bug-aboo

Silly nuggets like this week’s story about New York Times columnist Bret Stephens probably don’t deserve a blog. But I’m going to give some attention to what we can cheerfully call, “the bedbug incident,” as a cautionary tale for anyone who ends up as the butt of a public joke.

It’s amazing that we still have to wag our fingers at people warning them about the ridiculousness of certain responses – or shall we say over reactions – to public discourse in today’s media. But we do. Sigh.

Here’s what happened: In response to a tweet saying there are bedbugs in the NYT newsroom – it had to be a joke because gross – David Karpf sent out a tweet essentially saying Stephens was bedbug. Karpf admitted that the joke fell flat and had very little online response – until Stephens responded. He sent a sour email to Karpf and copied the provost of George Washington University where Karpf is a professor. Good night.

Again, you’d think by now it would be common knowledge that if you react emotionally in a media situation like this – and I would classify Stephens reaction as a definitive, “I’m in my feelings” moment – it almost never turns out well. Someone feels slighted – it’s rarely as important as they think it is – and then tries to take the offender to task in a public forum. Social media offers many diverse and popular platforms for this kind of nonsense. But our man Stephens sent his response via email.

You might think, oh, well, that’s different. He had something to say, but he was trying to keep things private. But here’s the thing. One, whether you try to keep a perceived grievance about online subject matter offline or not, it could end up online. That’s just the game. You have to operate knowing that when you try to call someone on the carpet their response can easily be made public. Two, common sense should have cautioned Stephens to pump his brakes because Karpf teaches a course on strategic political communication, for Pete’s sake.

Consider, if someone had the oomph to crack jokes about you on Twitter, what makes you think for a moment that person won’t immediately use your pissy response to gain publicity, or to turn you into a teachable moment for their students, and for the world? ‘Cuz that’s exactly what Karpf did in a nicely executed op-ed for the Los Angeles Times.

At the end of it all, Stephens finds himself comparatively joined – and not in a good way – to a host of joke worthy conservatives like Megyn Kelly whose ultra sensitivity in the face of any controversy or criticism makes them ideal targets for ridicule and scorn. He’s been turned into an actual bug, smushed on the windscreen of popular media, and it’s his own fault because he should have known better.

I suppose the real question is, why exactly did Stephens think his email whine was a good idea? It makes no sense. As a columnist for one of the most well-known publications in the country, he should have some knowledge of how the media works. Maybe he believes the old adage that all publicity is good publicity? Or, maybe he actually wanted to become the butt of this week’s media snark, and forever find himself on the wrong end of a litany of jokes about insects and pest control?

I’m thinking, nah. But he let his ego take over. Presumably, that overly healthy ego whispered in his ear that yes, he absolutely had the authority to scold another adult via email and copy his boss. The result? A harmless, two-sentence tweet went viral, bloggers like me get to poke fun at him on a Friday, and sundry others can use him as a poster child for what not to do and how not to respond to the media in a similar situation.

I mean, come on. Dude. Don’t overreact to things people post about you on Twitter. The best way to handle almost any incident involving public jokes at your expense is to respond in kind, and laugh it off. You definitely should not attempt to have someone punished for daring to use your not at all classified name in a tweet. If you feel that you simply must respond in a serious fashion, you better reason out every possible response and scenario on the back end of that response. Ten to one you’ll ultimately decide that the risk of having your face attached to a bed bug’s body – gross – is just not worth it.

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