FAU Prof With Controversial Newtown Theories Says He Was Misunderstood
Most of the victims of the Newtown school massacre were just like Florida Atlantic University professor James Tracy's daughter: seven-year-old first graders at a public school.
"If a similar tragedy were visited upon me and my family, I would be beside myself," he says. "But I think one of my ways of healing would be attempting to find out what went wrong, where was the failure."
But trying to start a public discussion of the public's small hope of ever finding out what went wrong has been costly.
Tracy, a tenured associate professor of communications, is now in damage control mode after a disastrous interview he gave to a Sun Sentinel reporter who was following up on an entry in Tracy's blog. The story, under the headline "FAU prof stirs controversy by disputing Newtown massacre," portrayed him as a conspiracy theorist not completely convinced that the massacre had even occurred.
At the very least, as the story went, the event had been massaged by the government and cooperative "corporate media" into a parable on the need for gun control.
Tracy insists he was misunderstood.
But the story quickly went national and a storm of anger, scorn and ridicule exploded over his head. Bloggers called him "the nutty professor." Sun Sentinel columnist Michael Mayo urged students to boycott his classes. The top elected official in Newtown, Conn., called on FAU to fire him.
That has him worried, and his voice even shakes a little as he talks about it.
"I am sure (FAU is) receiving emails that are emotionally driven," Tracy told WLRN. "But I would think if FAU wishes to revoke my tenure and terminate me, that's a blow against academics' being able to speak their minds on the events of the day."
"Emotionally driven" is the thing that Tracy really hates and that feeling goes a good way to the explanation of what he says he was really trying to express: That the news media's first take on Newtown, guided almost exclusively by government sources, was likely to harden into the accepted history of the event, a history that could never be questioned without exposing the skeptic to a charge of being a "conspiracy theorist."
Look at Pearl Harbor, he says. The sinking of the USS Maine. The Lusitania. 9/11. All of those events are now viewed through prisms of patriotism, affection and partisanship that, as Tracy warns his journalism students (now with the fresh lesson of his own experience), trigger frantic and vitriolic defenses when they are doubted.
And it's all because the news media has never been good at its traditional duty of writing the first draft of history.
"The news media swooped into Newtown very briefly to cover the tragedy in a very vampiric sort of way, then swooped back out again without giving us any real answers," Tracy says. "Then, they immediately went into the grieving mode. I'm not saying there's not a place for that. But if we want to actually pay homage to the events, we want to find out what actually went wrong. That's the greatest honor we can give them."
Tracy's theory does depend partly on a conspiracy theory that most journalists will scoff at, that an editor or reporter from a major news organization would agree to withhold major details of a huge story just to allow the government to frame the story as it wishes.
Exposure would be inevitable and the reporter who blew the whistle would get credit for a story bigger than Newtown itself.
Here's more of our interview with Prof. James Tracy:
Do you challenge any of the basic facts of Newtown?
There are certainly people that lost their loved ones, there is no doubt of that. What I looked at primarily was the media coverage and that leaves much to be desired in terms of finding out more specifically what took placed.
The idea that you are some sort of crazy person, obsessed with conspiracy theories. How do you respond to that?
That is a way to dismiss the discussion of controversial issues and it's been done for years. The term "conspiracy theorist" was devised in the 60s and it was utilized by the CIA to quiet academics and authors and journalists because there's nothing worse than being called a conspiracy theorist because then your judgment on a wide variety of concerns that comprise your livelihood are called into question. It's time to get beyond these pejoratives because they stand in the way of more serious inquiry into extremely important events and issues.
We look at under-investigated stories, stories that will fly under the radar of CNN or NBC, that will not capture public attention though it may be tremendously important. These things can be easily dismissed as being conspiratorial.
Do you think news consumers are not thinking critically?
Yes, and it goes beyond journalism and news. As a society, we are encouraged to defer to experts, whether it’s the pundit on the talk show or the weatherman. We're not encouraged to think for ourselves. As a result, a lot of decisions are made for us by government and corporations that are not in our best interests.
Have you damaged your career with your Newtown theories?
Whether (FAU) will choose to revoke my tenure and terminate me, I am prepared for that. I believe that it would not make the FAU administration look very favorable in the longer scheme of things if they do not stand up for academic freedom. In fact, (FAU) President Mary Jane Saunders, it was one of the themes at her inauguration, where she spoke about the defense of academic freedom. I continue to believe that is something she values.
And a simple take-away for the rest of us?
Simply to think more critically when taking in the affairs of the day through the media.