FAU professor James Tracy speaks to students about issues in higher education on November 5th, 2012.
How the Mass Media Smeared the Messenger While Discouraging Critical ThinkingSo by now, people who've been following Sandy Hook know who James Tracy is—the Florida Atlantic University professor who was vilified for daring to question the official narrative of the Sandy Hook massacre on his blog. This is the part he wrote that sparked outrage and incredulity across the world:
Once the mainstream media caught wind that these words were not those of a crackpot conspiracy theorist but an academic, it reacted predictably with one collective knee jerk. Instead of addressing the more cogent claims in Tracy's post, journalists fixated on and skewed the "it may not have happened" part of his theory. They equated it as Tracy saying that it didn't happen at all, virtually putting words in his mouth and compromising his position from the outset. The headline from Daily Mail, as well as the controlling idea that permeated throughout the Internet, was "Conspiracy theory professor says Sandy Hook shooting may not have happened."While it sounds like an outrageous claim, one is left to inquire whether the Sandy Hook shooting ever took place—at least in the way law enforcement authorities and the nation's news media have described.
But as Tracy explained in part of his statement to CNN after Anderson Cooper took personal offense, his controversial words were taken out of context by the mass media:
Following up on his newfound notoriety in an interview with InfoWars days later, Tracy made it clear that he thinks children were killed at Sandy Hook, and commented on how the media spun his story differently:I apologize for any additional anguish and grief my remarks—and how they have been taken out of context and misrepresented—may have caused the families who've lost loved ones on December 14.
The context in Tracy's original statement should be reiterated because it's exactly the part that the mass media—the same institution that Tracy's being critical of—disregarded in regarding Tracy as a heretic on the level of a Holocaust denier.I never said anything declarative in any of my articles about "this happened." I was saying, "Could this be a possibility?" And yet the media took that and ran with it—took my assertion as an allegation, when it was merely a question. And that, unfortunately, is how this has been framed, and how I think that it's been offensive especially to the people that lost their loved ones up there in Newtown. I never actually intended that in any way, shape, or form.
Paybacks are hell, I guess?
An Essential RereadingWe also need to frame the messenger himself in a more enlightened context to understand where his comments are coming from. A 47-year-old communications professor at Florida Atlantic University since 2002, Tracy teaches a class about conspiracy theories. Since March 2012, his blog, Memory Hole, has served as an outlet for his essays discussing conspiracy theories, as well as general distrust toward the government and the media. As the name of his blog implies, its purpose is to provide "a forum for criticism and commentary on sociopolitical issues and phenomena overlooked or misreported by mainstream media."
When re-examining Tracy's original statement in this role as a critic of the media, it comes off a little differently. He explains this in an interview with Fox News:
In his InfoWars interview, Tracy states, "I am simply posing questions." His questions regarding the media's reporting of Sandy Hook and the police's investigation are uncomfortable, but legitimate. Some of which include:I said I think that there may very well be elements of that event that are synthetic to some degree, that are somewhat contrived. I think overall that the media really did drop the ball. I don't think that they got to the bottom of some of the things that may have taken place there.
- What happened to the disappearing shooter suspects? Stick with your gut on this one. Although Snopes offers answers for the suspects in question, the debunked arguments don't seem to convincingly correspond to the video footage, nor to more details that Tracy notes from the reporting of the shooting.
Snopes also doesn't link to all of the sources, including to a Salon article that apparently quotes Lt. Paul Vance of the Connecticut State Police as saying:
By the way, whatever happened to the "two occupants with a possible ski mask" fleeing the scene in a purple van? Maybe only Lt. Vance knows."Were there other people detained? The answer is yes. In the height of battle, until you've determined who, what, when, where and why of everyone in existence...that's not unusual."
- Where is the school's security footage? Sandy Hook Principal Dawn Hochsprung, who was killed in the attack, had recently implemented new security measures at the school, including the presence of security cameras. Whatever the cameras captured could definitively clear up any conjecture about what happened at Sandy Hook Elementary on December 14th.
- Is this guy really a coroner? Maybe you can chalk up his awkwardness to it being his second press conference in more than 30 years on the job, but as Tracy says, "Carver’s unusual remarks and behavior warrant close consideration because in light of his professional notoriety they appear remarkably amateurish and out of character." He continues:
...the H. Wayne Carver who showed up to the December 15 press conference is an almost entirely different man, appearing apprehensive and uncertain, as if he is at a significant remove from the postmortem operation he had overseen. The multiple gaffes, discrepancies, and hedges in response to reporters’ astute questions suggest that he is either under coercion or an imposter. While the latter sounds untenable it would go a long way in explaining his sub-pedestrian grasp of medical procedures and terminology.
- From various forms of suppression to a government drill the same day, how can these other oddities surrounding the tragedy be explained?
What Tracy is saying is, "How do we really know anything?" Similar to the reporting of Osama bin Laden's death in May 2011, a truly objective person shouldn't be wrong in asking, "But how do we actually know that he's dead? What kind of undeniable visual confirmation is there?" This isn't necessarily being paranoid or conspiratorial. In this world of illusion and subterfuge that we live in, it's simply holding the the media to the flames and believing something when you actually see it—not just taking their word for it.Photographic and video evidence is at once profuse yet lacking in terms of its capacity to demonstrate that a mass shooting took place on the scale described by authorities. For example, in an era of ubiquitous video surveillance of public buildings especially no visual evidence of Lanza's violent entry has emerged. And while studio snapshots of the Sandy Hook victims abound there is little if any eyewitness testimony of anyone who's observed the corpses except for Carver and his staff, and they appear almost as confused about the conditions of the deceased as any layperson watching televised coverage of the event. Nor are there any routine eyewitness, photo or video evidence of the crime scene's aftermath—broken glass, blasted security locks and doors, bullet casings and holes, bloodied walls and floors—all of which are common in such investigations and reportage.
What we do know is that the media admitted to making many mistakes in their reporting on December 14th. As Jim Fetzer wrote in the Duluth News Tribune:
The facts are not obvious. There were inconsistencies from scratch. The suspect, Adam Lanza, was a student there; then he was not. His mother was a teacher there; then she was not. The principal called the local paper to report the shooting; then she was among the first to die.And although it hasn't been widely circulated, NBC now reports that apparently no assault rifle was used in the shooting—directly contradicting the coroner's conclusion that "the long weapon" was used in the murders.
With key questions and information that the media either got wrong or didn't follow up on, can you blame discerning people like Tracy for doubting the official story, leading them to surmise that Sandy Hook could've been ultimately perpetrated by the Obama administration in order to enact swift gun legislation that's currently moving its way through Congress? While this is not an unreasonable possibility, there is currently no hard evidence to confirm this correlation.
On the surface, Tracy's suspicions may sound crazy, but since when was ours a world in which nothing crazy or conspiratorial ever happens? Just one month into 2013, we've already had two very scandalous flavors of the month: Manti Te'o and Lance Armstrong.
Doubting All DoubtersLet's take a look at how the media discredited skeptics as Sandy Hoax became an Internet meme. They started by attaching the "truther" label (the term already carrying with it significant stigma from 9/11 truthers), effectively relegating any Sandy Hook critics to the fringes of the loony bin that's both mocked and governed by cultural taboo.
Then instead of addressing the more profound questions surrounding the shooting (raised in the previous section), writers cherry-picked the most assailable and unfounded aspects to debunk, such as the story of Emilie Parker, a victim who appeared to be in a photo with President Obama after the shooting, but in all likelihood was her younger lookalike sister. Articles criticizing Tracy did not note that Tracy has not mentioned Emilie Parker in any of his blog posts.
Republican-leaning journalist Jack Cashill was also keen on the cherry-picking by debunkers, particularly regarding a Huffington Post video that attempts to ridicule the Sandy Hook conspiracy theory:
Then there's Gene Rosen, the 69-year-old Newtown resident who sheltered six kids after they fled from Sandy Hook Elementary School. Once Rosen's account spread across the Internet in a few effusively emotional interviews, he began receiving threatening phone calls and emails accusing him of fabricating his story, no doubt due to other unusual performances from the coroner and various family members of the victims, including Robbie Parker, Emilie's father.Like too many alleged fact checkers, [editor Meredith] Bennett-Smith addresses only the least significant of the challenges to the Sandy Hook narrative: the alleged use of crisis actors, the memorials that predated the shooting, the confusion about what weapon was in Adam Lanza's trunk. The 'experts' she promises in the headline turn out to be other Obama-friendly fact checkers like David Mikkelson, founder of Snopes, and Robert Blaskiewicz, editor of a comparable blog called Skeptical Humanities. Absent in the piece is anyone who knows anything about guns or police work....
Predictably, what the HuffPo piece does not address are the two most troubling inconsistencies in the Sandy Hook reporting: the nature of the guns used and the presence or absence of a second shooter. Both questions have gained importance because of the White House's obvious political exploitation of a ginned up 'assault weapon' hysteria.
In response, the media again knee-jerked and played up the "harassment of a hero" angle, automatically making anyone who doubts Rosen's story an asshole. Well done.
As word of the Sandy Hook conspiracy theory went viral, various hit pieces and op-ed articles have cropped up in an effort to debunk the claims. One more recent one is by The Daily Illini's Andrew Horton, a student at the University of Illinois. In his column entitled, "Don't take conspiracy theorists at face value", he uses some poorly chosen words in an effort to dismiss the theory (bold emphasis added below):
Let's recall some of what the media reported that day, all of which have proved to be wrong: (1) the shooter was Ryan Lanza, (2) Adam Lanza was a student at Sandy Hook Elementary (3) Adam Lanza's mother was a teacher there (4) The principal didn't call The Newtown Bee because she was already dead, and (5) Assault weapons were used. Sure, news reporting isn't always consistent, but these and the possibility of having multiple shooters (4) are hardly "subtle inconsistencies," nor is the news coverage from major media outlets "obscure."In addition to evaluating the ethos of a source, it's important to realize that a majority of conspiracy evidence is supported by subtle inconsistencies from media coverage during a particular event in question. For instance, Sandy Hook theorists often point to early moments in television coverage when some networks were reporting that there were two shooters instead of one.
While theorists suggest that this was a clear sign of some twisted plot, the more probable explanation is actually much simpler. News outlets are always competing with one another to break stories first. Thus, it is very common to see networks jump the gun and report inaccurate information before going back and amending it. Thus, merely relying on obscure sound bites is not enough to suggest that something suspicious is going on, especially when these sound bites are coupled with heavy doses of biased speculation.
A skeptical predisposition is apparent with most writers who attempt to refute conspiracy theories, but for Sandy Hook, none more so than openly ignorant writer Lee Harris of The American, who "debunks" conspiracy theories by refusing to even look into them. After all, he has better things to do with his time:
Suffice it to say that Harris isn't doing any favors for journalistic integrity. And Lee, if you're not going to do any actual research in your writing, please consider retiring sooner rather than later....by my own admission, I categorically refuse to pay even the slightest attention to any argument that [Tracy] can put forth, just as I do when I am dealing with people who think that George W. Bush blew up the Twin Towers or that the CIA masterminded the killing of John F. Kennedy. Yes, I am perfectly aware that the proponents of these popular conspiracy theories have mountains and mountains of evidence and facts at their disposal and can point to piles and piles of inconsistencies and contradictions in the conventional accounts of these notable catastrophes. I am also perfectly aware that by refusing even to glance at their arguments I am placing myself in the position of one who is unwilling to listen to 'the other side of the question'—the first duty, surely, of anyone who claims to be objective, or even rational for that matter. But if the price of passing myself off as fair and open-minded is to dedicate the rest of my life, which isn’t getting any longer, to the detailed perusal and rebuttal of every conspiracy theory that comes down the pike, then I would far prefer to be regarded as a narrow-minded bigot... It just isn't worth it.
Friends in High Places
The good news is that Tracy isn't the only one who has questions about Sandy Hook. Ben Swann, primetime anchor at WXIX Fox 19 in Cincinnati and the man behind Reality Check with Ben Swann, is another voice of reason in these turbulent times, says PolicyMic's Christopher McDaniel:
Kurtis Hagen, Chair of the Philosophy Department at SUNY Plattsburgh, recently supported Tracy's inquiry and the importance of raising necessary questions, however unpleasant:[Swann's] latest piece, via his web-based, "Full Disclosure" series, does not allude to any of the shootings being a "false flag" or a "hoax." However, it does what we the people should demand of journalists—it asks questions. Swann asks how so many eyewitnesses can claim to see multiple shooters at these events, and somehow all we get is a lone gunman narrative, every single time.
"Take the Wisconsin temple shooting. Multiple people reported 4 shooters on the building. Even in the 'fog of war' it would be difficult to mistake 1 person for 4," he wrote. "As you know, a journalist's job is not to have the answers, it is to ask the questions and search for truth. That is why at the end of the video we call for the release of surveillance video to set the record straight," he said.
Chris Robé, president of the university's faculty union, adds an important point.Sadly, voicing unpopular views is a responsibility that is largely neglected in the academy. And even if Dr. Tracy has made some misjudgments regarding the present case (about which I reserve judgment), at least he has demonstrated an uncommon degree of courage in voicing opinions that risk engendering personal troubles. We would be better off with more professors willing to do that, even if it occasionally causes discomfort. For sometimes troubling views are both true and important....
Finally, even if Dr. Tracy's suspicion that something is seriously wrong with the official story is not born out, that does not mean his critique of the media is entirely without merit. And, in any case, it is important for someone to independently evaluate events and critique their portrayal in the media. As a professor of communication studies, Dr. Tracy was doing his job, even if he is wrong.
You have to respect peoples' right to free speech. It's easy to agree with free speech when everyone agrees with what's being said. It's when everyone disagrees that it gets complicated.
Tracy Stands His GroundIn the face of anathemic criticism, and even on the brink of losing his tenured job, Tracy is sticking to his guns, and the media remains incredulous. Best of all, Tracy sees through the corporate media's smear tactics and their fear of weaponized terms like "conspiracy theorist":
Tracy takes it to the next level in a post entitled, Sandy Hook School Massacre Part II: Continued Ambiguity and Augmented Realities:I think that as an academic, and I think that this is also the case with regard to journalists—they fear being called a conspiracy theorist. That is the pejorative that's being used against me to make an example out of me, to threaten my job, to get me to be quiet, to not ask questions. It's important to think about how this term originated, how actually it developed....
...and then gets to the heart of it in an interview with University Press, FAU's student magazine:Along these lines and despite countervailing facts and inconsistencies the official story of the Sandy Hook shooting is now part of the nation’s collective experience, consciousness and memory. To declare that the shooting 'never took place' is cause for intense opprobrium in most polite circles where, in familiar Orwellian fashion, the media-induced trance and dehistoricized will to believe maintain their hold.
Continuing this thought in the post that started it all:You have these big media outlets that are interested in the human interest element of my remarks, eventually causing hurt to the Newtown family members. It became less to do with my critique of the media and more to do with this human interest element.
In response to Anderson Cooper's tirade, Tracy expressed sympathy for the victims' families while underscoring the need to understand exactly what happened at Sandy Hook:The move to railroad this program through with the aid of major media and an irrefutable barrage of children’s portraits, "heartfelt" platitudes and ostensible tears neutralizes a quest for genuine evidence, reasoned observation and in the case of Newtown honest and responsible law enforcement.
These last few points really form Tracy's biggest takeaway in the Sandy Hook controversy—in revealing the human condition's struggle with cognitive dissonance in pursuit of true, unadulterated justice. Because the only true way to do justice to the victims in Newtown, and to help prevent future tragedies from occurring, is to ensure that everyone knows for sure what happened. But it is precisely this notion that seems to fly over the heads of skeptics and debunkers, because most seem inclined to blindly defend the official story—the one that's the least crazy-sounding....I believe the most profound memorial we can give the children and educators who lost lives on that day is to identify and interrogate the specific causes of their tragic and untimely demise.
In the midst of a university investigation, Tracy's future with FAU is tenuous, but the level-headed professor is looking at the situation the right way.
Tracy is right. Because right now gun-bearers are fearful of losing their Second Amendment rights. But it's the slipping-away of their First Amendment freedoms that they should be more afraid of.If they intend to fire me, ultimately, how good of an institution is it? If they’re not going to stand up for free speech and ideas and things of the like, then I’m not too sure I want to be here, either.