Most of the victims of the Connecticut school massacre were just like Florida Atlantic University professor James Tracys daughter: 7-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 said. 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 publics small hope of ever finding out what went wrong has been costly.
Tracy, a tenured associate professor of communications, is in damage control mode after a disastrous interview he gave to a Sun Sentinel reporter who was following up on an entry in Tracys 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-Miami Herald News. But I would think if FAU wishes to revoke my tenure and terminate me, thats 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 medias 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 sinking of the Lusitania. 9/11. All of those events are now viewed through prisms that, as Tracy warns his journalism students (now with the fresh lesson of his own experience), trigger vitriolic defenses when doubted.
And its all because the news media have never been good at their 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. Im not saying theres 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. Thats the greatest honor we can give them.
Tracys theory does depend partly on a conspiracy theory that most journalists will scoff at: that 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 wished.
Exposure would be inevitable, and the reporter who blew the whistle would get credit for a story bigger than Newtown itself.