Vigilante justice on the Internet: Drew Carey and Jenny McCarthy's dumb stunt

An autistic teen is bullied -- but don't put a bounty on his tormenters

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published September 9, 2014 2:32PM (EDT)

Drew Carey, Jenny McCarthy            (AP/Scott Roth/Cliff Owen/Salon)
Drew Carey, Jenny McCarthy (AP/Scott Roth/Cliff Owen/Salon)

It was a bullying prank straight out of the Stephen King playbook. But whose job is it to mete out justice?

Last week, the parents of an autistic Ohio 14-year-old boy went public with their story of how "horrified" they'd been that their son had been tricked into participating in a bogus ice bucket challenge. In the video, he can be seen standing in front of a garage in just his underwear. And instead of being doused in ice cubes and water, the boy received a shower of "feces, urine, spit and cigarette butts" dumped from the roof. The bullies used the boy's own phone to record the event, and post it on Instagram. Bay Village police told the family last week that the people involved, when found, could face delinquency charges. And as the boy's mother told Fox8 Cleveland, "I want these kids held accountable for what they did to him and they targeted somebody who just didn’t really understand what was going on."

That's where Cleveland native Drew Carey stepped in. On Saturday, the comic and the "Price Is Right" host spoke out on Twitter, promising, "If the Bay Village PD wants to start a reward fund to find who did this, contact me. I'll donate $10k." Donnie Wahlberg and his new wife, Jenny McCarthy – who has famously and controversially chronicled her experience as the mother of a son with autism --  stepped up as well, offering another $10,000 each. And Montel Williams offered to "ante up" but added, "I'd rather speak at the school and tell these kids why this isn't how we behave. Better yet I'll talk to the parents."

The local police department has not commented on the reward, but has issued a statement that it is working with the school on investigating "this heinous act" and that "It is the hope of our community that this anger will be channeled into a positive action and supporting organizations such as Autism Speaks. Anyone wishing to make a personal donation to the family should contact the family representatives." And when someone suggested on Twitter that Drew Carey give the reward money to Autism Speaks, he said that if the culprits are found without the reward, "Then done."

There's no doubt that the people who pulled this horrendous stunt deserve to be found and punished. There is no doubt that there's an opportunity within this heartless incident to do some good and raise awareness. But when the Internet's self-righteous angry mob gets rolling – especially when it's motivated by the possibility of reward – things can get out of hand. Remember the amateur sleuthing failures in the wake of the Boston bombing last year? And just last month, "anonymous" misidentified the  cop who shot Michael Brown in Ferguson.

As many Drew Carey fans on Twitter have also pointed out in the past few days, Autism Speaks may not be the most useful place for Carey to put his money. Its senior leadership has been criticized for lacking any autistic members. Author and autism advocate John Elder Robison has spoken eloquently about his disagreement with the philosophical rhetoric of the organization. And many people within the autism community strongly oppose it.

When something patently awful happens to a fellow human being, it's heartening that there are so many people in the world who want to reach out and help. Two years ago, school bus driver Karen Klein endured the verbal abuse of a handful of her charges – and wound up collecting well over six figures in donations from well-wishers when the video of her bullying incident when viral. The generosity of the online community can be amazing. But it's important to remember that good intentions can go wildly astray. They can lead to hastily targeting the wrong people, especially when there's at least 30 grand on the line. Frankly, if I were the parent of an innocent teenage boy unfortunate enough to raise suspicion in Bay Village right now, I'd be very scared for his safety. And if I were a celebrity or a spokesman for a local police station, I'd thoroughly investigate the charities I'd pledged to support and encouraged others to give to before making any public declarations about them. Justice doesn't always happen quickly and it doesn't always come with a big reward, and I'm not really sure where Montel Williams' preference to do a speaking engagement factors in to any of it. You can't just throw money and Montel Williams at a bullying problem and feel good about yourself. And frustrating as it may be, the desire to take action always has to be measured against the imperative to investigate fairly -- before somebody else gets hurt too.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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Als Autism Drew Carey Going Viral Ice Bucket Challenge Jenny Mccarthy