Commentary: Reaction to FAU professor’s Newtown conspiracy is misguided and misinformed

Communications Professor James Tracy sparked controversy with his comments about the recent Sandy Hook school shooting. Photo by Ryan Murphy.

Communications Professor James Tracy sparked controversy with his comments about the recent Sandy Hook school shooting. Photo by Ryan Murphy.

Ryan Cortes

Senior Editor Ryan Cortes

When I saw the headline — FAU prof stirs controversy by disputing Newtown massacre — I had one thought: James Tracy. Who else?

I’ve taken three of Tracy’s classes in my time at FAU, including one called Culture of Conspiracy. I’m well aware of the man’s ideologies. Hell, I’ve seen more 9/11 documentaries than Tarantino flicks, and damn do I love those. But I also love people who think differently and cause you to see perspectives you wouldn’t ponder.

In a series of blog posts on his site — the first coming on Christmas, the last coming this past Sunday — Tracy made readers ponder plenty, most of it not pretty. He spilled out over 14,000 words, asking questions about the recent Newton, Conn. massacre. Maybe the parents interviewed after were trained actors? Maybe there were multiple shooters? Maybe the whole event was just a setup for more gun-control talk?

The Sun Sentinel picked up the professor’s story and closed its comment section after so much loud noise. The Huffington Post re-ran the story and left its comment section open, giving space to things like “Fire him NOWWWWWWWW” and “this loony tune still has a job at FAU how?” Gawker even picked apart his post.

I understood why. Even asking the question was disrespectful to many. The mere thought seemed to minimize the grief and grimaces many felt after Adam Lanza allegedly shot young and innocent children. My own mother emailed me after she heard about Tracy. “He sounds crazy to me,” she said. “I think it is sad to see what he did.”

Now, mind you, this is someone who has changed my opinion many times before. His theories usually center around a failed national media that didn’t dig deep and ask more questions. It led him to believe Osama bin Laden’s alleged killing was a conspiracy, that the Oklahoma City Bombings were another, and that 9/11 had so many unanswered questions that if you weren’t asking on your own, well, you never were going to ask about anything anyway.

So I come into this discussion having spent a good deal of time with the man. I know how he thinks and I know when he starts asking questions, this many questions, he’s informed on the subject and he’ll cause me to at least think twice. I didn’t agree with everything he wrote, but I knew what was coming Tracy’s way. Vitriol. Hate. Anger.

All of it.

Communications Professor James Tracy sparked controversy with his comments about the recent Sandy Hook school shooting. Photo by Ryan Murphy.

But none of these people knew the real Tracy. It was a blog post turned into a headline turned into a tweet turned into thousands of angry readers, but it didn’t tell the whole story. I remembered classmates of mine while taking Tracy’s classes who would stand outside during breaks, mesmerized, over what the professor’s opinions forced you think long and hard about before believing.

“I was a little intimidated at first because of how he presents the class,” says Manny Casillas, a senior multimedia journalism major. “But by the end of the semester I felt like I learned more than I had from any other teacher.”

“After I took his class,” says Lorenzo Ponce De Leon, another senior multimedia major, “there’s something that says, well wait a minute, based on the other stuff he’s taught us [maybe he’s right]. There’s a method to his madness.”

The last class I took with Tracy, we had a guest speaker come in one of our last meetings. He called himself Popeye, a 37-year-old with his own conspiracy website and radio show. He was covered in tattoos and came equipped with bold opinions.

“It takes a big brass set of balls to be a college professor and talk about what he talks about,” he told me yesterday. “Unfortunately today, most college professors are brain-washed. They toe the line.”

One, Chris Robé, FAU’s faculty union president, does not toe anything.

“The reaction is weird,” he said. “I mean, part of it I get. This isn’t being sensitive to the victims, and I get that, it’s OK. But there was one person commenting that said they believe in free speech but they don’t want their tax payer dollars to go to this. Well then, you don’t really believe in free speech, right?”

“The point is, the guy has the right to say what he’s saying. When people start saying he’s crazy or demand that he gets fired because they’re offended by something he says, well, shit, all of us could be fired for something offensive we’ve said.”

After his 10 p.m. Culture of Conspiracy class let out last night, Tracy was asked about his “offensive” comments from two local TV reporters. He was asked whether he wanted to apologize. He said the media should apologize for not doing its job in asking enough. When it was over, we walked across a dark, empty campus and the tired professor explained more.

“People, perhaps, they expect to be spoon fed their ideas and their worldviews and when someone comes along and says, wait a minute, that’s not right, they get upset. Fox News contacted the administration and asked if there was going to be any disciplinary action against me. Now who are they to say?”

And perhaps no one is running away from the controversy like FAU itself, sprinting like a fat football player deliriously bolting the other way with the ball in his hand for the first time in a long time. I asked for comment from the University yesterday and received this email:

Hi Ryan,
James Tracy does not speak for the university. The website on which his post appeared is not affiliated with FAU in any way.

Lisa Metcalf
Director, Media Relations

I emailed back the lovely media relations department and asked a follow-up. “While I understand that Mr. Tracy doesn’t speak for the university, my questions center around what the University makes of all this. Was the University aware how conspiratorial he was when he was hired? Do they mind? Do they think it’s a good thing/bad thing?”

Always helpful, they emailed back this:

My statement for your story is below.
Thanks, Lisa

I was confused. I mean, maybe they misread the email. I sent one more. “So the University has no comment on my specific questions? I understand if not, I’d just like to clarify.”

Nine minutes later I got my answer.

The statement I provided below is the response to your questions.
Lisa Metcalf

No, it isn’t. It doesn’t answer any questions, and although I have an FAU education under my belt, even I know that doesn’t answer anything. It does say plenty, though. Here was a man who craved asking questions and learning truths and here was a university so unwilling to ever ask any questions or provide any truths.

Tracy told me one more thing after his late night class. The traffic on his blog had skyrocketed this week. He had between 12-15,000 views on the theories. It made him think of how many more people — so very many more — had read tweets and headlines and blurbs about his post without reading his actual post.

At least he was thinking something.

[Ed.note: FAU president Mary Jane Saunders released this statement about Tracy earlier today.]