A month ago the New York Times (NYT) carried on its front page the story of “a boy the bullies love to beat up, repeatedly.” The story was heart-breaking and appealed to everyone who’s been bullied or worried about their children being bullied — that is, almost everyone. The piece led to appearances on CNN and the Today Show by the boy, Billy Wolfe, countless articles in papers around the country, a flood of sympathetic letters to the NYT, and outrage in the blogosphere.
Billy Wolfe lives in my town, Fayetteville, Arkansas, and some of the incidents described in the article occurred at a school my children attend (although Billy is older and is now at the high school). The story didn’t fit with what I know about Fayetteville schools.
Sure enough, a little more than a week after the NYT article, the Northwest Arkansas Times (NAT) disclosed the existence of a police report on Billy Wolfe that suggests that he may have been the bully, or at least played a significant part in instigating the assaults. The NAT reporting on the police report contains allegations that Billy harassed a student confined to a wheelchair with muscular dystrophy by sneaking up behind him and screaming to aggravate the disabled boy’s sensitivity to noise, by bouncing a rubber ball against the disabled boy’s head, and by calling him “stupid” and a “retard.” The police report provides further context on the assaults described in the NYT. One allegedly occurred after Billy called a boy who had just moved from Germany and whose mother had just died of cancer a “”gay [expletive ] German” and then called his “deceased mother a vulgar name. ” Another incident allegedly occurred after Billy pushed another student. Billy was accused of picking on other kids, stealing, and intimidating those that he picked on against telling the teacher.
But the NYT article by Dan Barry makes no mention of the police report or the details contained in it. Nor did Dan Barry’s reporting uncover any of the information from the interviews contained in the Northwest Arkansas Times article. Instead, Barry simply writes, “It remains unclear why Billy became a target…” He also declares, “[Billy] has received a few suspensions for misbehavior, though none for bullying.” It seems the NYT reporter either somehow missed the existence of the police report or decided not to include its contents in his piece. Either way, it is very sloppy reporting. I sent an email to the Public Editor of the NYT asking if Barry had seen the police report, and, if he had seen it, why he chose not to include it in his article. Other than a form letter I’ve received no reply.
Of course, regardless of what Billy may have said to other students, it is wrong for them to hit him. Furthermore, even if Billy has been a bully of others doesn’t mean that he is not himself being bullied. And Fayetteville schools deserve some blame for not being on top of this situation better. But the more complicated picture that emerges after learning of the information in the Nothwest Arkansas Times but excluded from the NYT, is one that looks like school fighting and conflict and not necessarily bullying. Bullying implies a relatively clear hierarchy of victim and assailant.
But a newspaper article about conflict and some fighting in a small school district in Arkansas wouldn’t have been front page news in the NYT. Perhaps that’s why Dan Barry preferred his Lifetime Channel movie-version over the more complicated version that the facts seem to support. Perhaps it wasn’t ambition but laziness that distorted Barry’s article. Finding the police report and collecting all of the interviews found in the NW AR Times article would have required — uhm — reporting. It was much easier to take the story that the Wolfes’ attorney was peddling. And yes, the Wolfes are suing some of the other students and are planning to sue the school district. Barry’s article may read like a plaintiff’s brief because there actually is a plaintiff’s brief out there.
Others in the blogosphere have covered this story very well. In particular, see my Manhattan Institute colleague, Walter Olson’s post at Overlawyered.com. Blogger Scott Greenfield is quoted there with a pretty harsh assessment:
…what is the New York Times thinking? To have its knees cut off by its Northwest Arkansas namesake is humiliating, but to be shown up as deceptive fundamentally undermines its credibility. Without credibility, the Times is just a dog-trainers best friend and a tree’s worst nightmare. …
The failure of the New York Times to present a full and accurate account of the Billy Wolfe story is disgraceful and unacceptable. … If you’re going to put an article on the front page with a big picture, don’t blow it. The Times did. They should be ashamed.
Unfortunately, the Fayetteville School District is inexperienced with handing national reporters and they are handcuffed in responding to accusations because of student privacy issues and a pending lawsuit. Dan Barry from the NYT was able to ride roughshod over a small town school district. Maybe the Gray Lady is the most obvious bully here.