One of my personal pet peeves is that I don’t like it when journalists complain about criticisms they inevitably get. Especially in this age of social media, it’s a given that people will write things to people they don’t know on Facebook and Twitter that they would never have written in a letter, let alone say to someone’s face. While that’s something we can lament, those of us who are privileged to have media platforms must learn to grin and bear it. If you put your opinions out there, then you’ve got to tolerate the inevitable avalanche of comments that flows back in, whether praise or abuse. Journalists who publicly whine about how terrible it is to be insulted by the public need to toughen up —or find a different line of work.
So when social media exploded recently over New York Times’ columnist Bret Stephens’s complaint about George Washington University Professor David Karpf calling him a “bedbug” on Twitter, my first instinct was to think that the writer had made a mistake. Indeed, everything that followed his decision to dare his critic to come to his home, meet his family and then call him a name to his face demonstrated that he would have done better to just ignore the slight.
But while the orgy of mockery from both the left and the right that has been unleashed on Stephens is an object lesson in how not to engage with critics, there’s more to this story. Nor is the problem limited to his equally lamentable decision to link Karpf’s jibe to totalitarian regimes calling people insects, which was widely interpreted as a reference to the Holocaust.
At stake here are two values.
One is the coarsening of discourse and the decline of public civility. The fact that nasty attacks directed at journalists are often anti-Semitic in nature is also not something that those who worry about the state of our society should ignore.
Yet the willingness of so many to ignore Stephens’s seemingly unassailable point that Karp’s language was deplorable isn’t completely explained by the nasty tone of American politics or the virus of anti-Semitism that continues to thrive.
It’s also linked to a controversy involving the Times and its detractors. Just days before the Stephens kerfuffle erupted, the newspaper published an article that depicted an effort to dig up dirt on social media about liberal journalists as an attack on their First Amendment rights, rather than just a case of the tables being turned on the press. When a newspaper like the Times focuses attention on the indiscreet tweets of others, they call it journalism. However, when someone else uses the same methods against the press, including revelations about anti-Semitic comments, the Times thinks it’s unfair. The mainstream media’s arrogant dismissal of critics while it wields its power to humble political opponents is just as responsible for the general collapse of civility as the daily flow of vile insults that takes place on Twitter.
The attack on Stephens stemmed from a report about an outbreak of bedbugs in the Times’ New York City office building. Karpf, who teaches political communications, responded by saying that the real bedbug was Stephens because his columns are bad, and liberal critics of the writer have been unable to get rid of him.
Stephens responded by sending the professor an email in which he said that he “was amazed about the things supposedly decent people are willing to say about other people—people they’ve never met—on Twitter.” Stephens said that were Karpf to come to his home and confront him in person, it “would take some genuine courage and intellectual integrity.”
Clearly, Karpf lacks any shame about calling someone an insect on social media. Instead, he publicized the note Stephens sent him and then reveled in the subsequent deluge of attacks on the writer.
That Stephens also sent the note to the provost of GWU made it seem as if he was trying to get the professor fired (since Karpf has tenure, that would be impossible) contributed to the sense that the Times columnist was in the wrong.
Also against him was his subsequent language about totalitarians calling people insects. While Stephens and other conservative Jewish critics of President Donald Trump have been subjected to anti-Semitic insults, the attempt to shoehorn Karpf’s lame attempt at political humor at Stephens’s expense into a narrative about the growth of anti-Semitism was equally ill-judged.
Perhaps the real reason why so few sympathized with Stephens is that many Americans have noticed that much of the mainstream media can dish it out, but can’t take criticism without whining or smearing those who speak up.
Stephens is particularly vulnerable to criticism because of his political isolation.
A former editor of The Jerusalem Post and a winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Commentary for his work at The Wall Street Journal, he has been an eloquent advocate for conservative ideas and the defense of Israel. However, his opposition to Trump and subsequent departure for the Times has made him a target for conservatives who were once his fans. Stephens now openly roots for the Democrats, though he hasn’t changed his ideology, which means he is also the object of an unrelenting storm of abuse from the Times’ liberal readership.
That the Times treats efforts to give its journalists the same scrutiny for their indiscreet tweets that the newspaper directs at their conservative opponents as illegitimate is deeply hypocritical. The same perhaps can be said for Stephens’s effort to assert the moral high ground about civility, while at the same time calling the president “mentally unwell,” as he did on television this past weekend. It’s also true that Stephens has criticized those on the left who won’t listen to opponents, yet is quick to cry foul about those who hurl brickbats at him.
One conclusion we should draw from this controversy is that journalists who pull no punches in their commentaries are in no position to treat those who return the fire as illegitimate. Even mean-spirited criticisms should be endured with an understanding that these exchanges are just as much a part of the fabric of democracy. And unnecessarily dragging worries about anti-Semitism into this argument does neither the Jews nor the country any good.
As easy as it might be to dismiss Stephens as a hypocritical “snowflake,” that doesn’t mean he’s wrong about the cowardly and disgusting nature of so much political discourse today. Liberals and conservatives are both guilty of this; if anything, the problem seems to be growing worse.
One answer, as Stephens has now done, is to quit Twitter. But a better course of action would be for all of us to continue to engage in political debates without resorting to invective when confronted by opposing views. Even the most strongly held political convictions are no excuse for refusing to learn to disagree without being disagreeable. The future of democracy (and our sanity) depends on it.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.