What’s the appropriate response when someone is an asshole to you online?
This week Bret Stephens, as well as a number of reporters in Seattle, gave us new examples of what not to do. We'll get to the local story in a moment, but let's start with Bret Stephens.
On Monday, Stephens, already much-loathed for his opinion columns for the New York Times, saw that a professor at George Washington University named David Karpf called him a “bedbug” on Twitter after reports that there were actual bedbugs in the New York Times newsroom. “The bedbugs are a metaphor,” Karpf had tweeted. “The bedbugs are Bret Stephens.”
Karpf hadn’t tagged Stephens (meaning Twitter didn't automatically notify Stephens that Karpf had tweeted about him), and Karpf's tweet had basically no engagement (just 9 likes and zero retweets), but somehow Stephens found out about it anyway and, for some reason, decided to email him. Subject: “From Bret Stephens, New York Times.”
The email said: “I'm often amazed about 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. I would welcome the opportunity for you to come to my home, meet my wife and kids, talk to us for 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.”
Stephens didn’t just email the guy. In a remarkable display of hypocrisy for someone who has crowed about the woke scolds on social media and college campuses more than once, he also cc'd the provost at the university where Karpf teaches, and when Karpf posted a screenshot of this exchange on Twitter, it became a story in itself.
Stephens was raked across the Twitter coals, and, in a rare moment of unity, almost the entire political spectrum agreed that he was the fuck up. Both Trump and AOC got in on it, which might make this the first thing they’ve agreed on since… well, ever. Stephens then made the situation even worse for himself by going on MSNBC to try to explain himself. “There’s a bad history of being analogized to insects that goes back to a lot of totalitarian regimes in the past,” Stephens said on air, as though Karpf’s insult was an issue of human rights. This did not help his cause in the slightest.
Bret Stephens is in the wrong here. That’s clear. I’m not sure why being called a bedbug affected him so much that he felt the need to tell Karpf’s boss, but maybe that’s what happens when every time you open Twitter you get ratioed.
I do think some of the criticism Stephens gets is more of a knee-jerk contempt for conservatives in general and him in particular than a close reading of his work (he is not, for instance, a “climate change denier,” a label often hoisted upon him by people who don’t seem to have actually read his infamous column on climate change, which clearly stated, "the warming of the earth since 1880 is indisputable, as is the human influence on that warming”). But whatever made him melt down about being called a bedbug, there is absolutely no excuse to try to get someone in trouble with his/her/their boss for calling you a name on Twitter.
Bret Stephens is not a hall monitor, but he sure as hell is acting like it.
And it’s not just him. In fact, something similar happened this week in Seattle.
The story starts last Sunday, when Brandi Kruse, the anchor of the new Q13 show The Divide, had local writer and radio host Jason Rantz and political analyst C.R. Douglas on her show to discuss what they see as a pervasive bias against conservatives in the media. That same day, Wayne Lynch—the former news director of the now-defunct Northwest Cable News Network and a part-time newswriting instructor at the University of Washington-Tacoma—criticized Kruse on Facebook (in a now-deleted comment, he told her to smile more) and then sent her a number of hostile emails from his personal email account.
One of those emails read [sic throughout]:
You said it was a ‘hard look’ at news…..yeah, so you interview an old buddy from KIRO radio and C.R, who, for years, has been a fulltimer and contributor at your own station, AKA revolving door. Then you show us ‘behind the scenes’ at your own company__WOW! How about going to the TIMES or the TNT or KOUW. How incestuous this was.. This was a handout show. .I am sure you will have excuses, but this content was not even close to a ‘hard look.’ How about inviting Kate Starbird from UW who has deeoly reasearched the fake news topi?. How about a true journalist, not a radio host at night when no one listens. Puhleeze. Weak.
Kruse responded, and asked Lynch to stop contacting her.
He declined this request, instead sending her a string of increasingly angry emails. In one, he called her “Miss Fragile.” Kruse retaliated by posting screenshots of his emails to Twitter, at which point Lynch threatened to sue her. (So, basically, it was a normal day on the internet.)
Kruse didn’t tag UW (Lynch's employer) in her tweets, but several other Twitter users, including KOMO News Director Bill Dallman, did. Lynch is apparently a frequent critic of KOMO and its parent company Sinclair, and Dallman has had his own run-ins with him in the past. Dallman declined to speak on the record, but on Twitter, he said that after Lynch was nasty to him, he’d informed UW of Lynch’s behavior, and afterward, Lynch cut it out.
Kruse, who also declined to comment on the record, spoke to UW as well. On Monday, after this had become something of a thing on Twitter, she contacted the school and provided them with Lynch’s emails. The school does not comment on personnel issues, and declined to comment for this piece, but a representative did provide a statement to Jason Rantz, who first reported about this in an article entitled “Notorious UW Lecturer Wages Sexist Bullying Against Local Reporter.”
That statement read:
UW Tacoma opposes all forms of harassment, and would carefully investigate reports of harassment being perpetrated by an employee. University policy prohibits various forms of misconduct when they are directly related to an employee’s University affiliation, while at the same time there are First Amendment protections that apply to all Americans’ personal speech.
And therein lies the problem, because Wayne Lynch is perfectly within his First Amendment rights to call Brandi Kruse “Miss Fragile,” just as David Karpf is to call Bret Stephens a “bedbug.” In fact, because Lynch is a state employee, he’s actually more protected than if he worked at, say, a private school like Karpf does, or the local K-Mart, or even Q13 or KOMO News. Private corporations don’t have to protect their employees' rights to free speech; state institutions like UW do (although some of them are better at it than others).
Still, this put UW in something of a tough spot. Their employee isn't just accused of sending annoying emails, but of sexism and harassment, something universities and other institutions are taking more and more seriously after #MeToo. At the same time, the university must balance this concern with Lynch's right to free speech.
So is telling a news anchor to "smile more" protected? In a word: yes.
“Colloquially, there is a lot people will describe as harassment that does not rise to the level of legal harassment,” says Adam Steinbaugh, the director of the Individual Rights Defense Program at FIRE, a nonpartisan organization that advocates for free speech on campus.
“Harassment laws were intended to stop behavior, not speech,” he continued. “So, for example, the person who rings your doorbell and then runs away every night or who calls you in the middle of the night and just breathes into the phone—that’s the type of thing harassment laws were intended to prevent. Someone sending emails to a news anchor criticizing even something as petty as how they look or how much they smile—that probably doesn't rise to the level of unlawful harassment. The remedy in that case is to delete the email or filter it out."
If Lynch didn’t technically harass (or threaten) Kruse or Dallman, he does seem to be something of a pain in the ass. He has also, according to Rantz, targeted both male and female anchors and staff at KXLY and KING 5, among other news outlets. Still, Lynch is perfectly within his rights to call TV news people shit reporters if he pleases. (I'm not a big local news watcher so I will refrain some speculating on the veracity of his claims.)
Kruse said on Twitter that she’s concerned about Lynch teaching journalism students. Rantz did the same, asking in his article, “Is he the best person to teach at UW-Tacoma?” I suppose it’s a legitimate question: Is a man who would tell young female news anchors to smile more really the kind of person you want molding young minds? Maybe not, but none of the reporters he offended offered evidence that he is sexist or incompetent in the classroom. Of course, it's certainly possible that he's as unhinged as a teacher as he is while watching the local news, but his online reviews from students are average. None mention telling women to smile, although one says that he "gives off a grandpa kind of vibe."
Now, I see nothing wrong with posting screenshots of shitty emails to Twitter. I do it myself all the time. Readers are welcome to call me a Nazi or a libtard or whatever the insult du jour is, but the consequence to them is that I may post a screenshot of it online. I generally (though not always) obscure the sender’s name, but making fun of hate mail is the one upside of getting it. It’s a coping mechanism, although I will admit it’s not a particularly mature one. It's also an effective way to get them to stop.
But what I would never do is tell someone’s boss. Our private lives are just that—private—and the last person who should be litigating someone's behavior off the clock is their boss. Of course, plenty of places do this, from mandatory drug tests to morality clauses in contracts. But reporting Lynch or Karpf or anyone to the boss for legal behavior that takes place outside of work is just giving employers more power. Why in the world would anyone want that? And yet, this tendency to immediately report to the manager seems to be growing.
Probably, like everything else, social media is at least partly to blame: Someone does something shitty—tells a woman to smile more, cheats on a girlfriend, sends something unwanted messages in the DMs—and the offended party decides uses social media to call the offender out, often tagging their place of employment. Loathe to get any bad press, the university or corporation or institute feels forced to respond. Sometimes the employee is protected; sometimes they lose their job.
I get the impulse to shame and to tattle. The desire for revenge is a powerful one, but I’m still not comfortable with employers litigating behavior off-site. My boss isn’t my parent nor my spouse, and his or her control over my life should be minimal, at most. And yet, every time someone complains to the manager, be it Bret Stephens or Brandi Kruse or Bill Dallman or just some random person on Twitter, they are inviting employers to have more control over their employees' lives than any of us should want.
In this case, I doubt UW will fire Lynch (who did not respond to a request for comment), but a private companiy certainly could. Should losing one’s job really be the consequence for criticizing people who make the news? I'm not sure anyone in media should have that kind of power. As Jack Shafer wrote recently in Politico, "Journalists don't have thin skins, broadcaster Edward R. Murrow is reputed to have said, they have no skins."
Now, there is a difference between calling someone a bedbug behind their back and sending a barrage of hostile emails to a public figure. I see that. But we’re all adults here, and for those of us working in media, there’s an easy solution to annoying emails beside running to tell the boss: First delete them, and then block the sender.