While former Florida Atlantic University Professor James Tracy battles in court to get his job back, I’ve reminisced over the semester I took one of his classes, an experience that left me uneasy.
In January 2016, FAU officials fired Tracy claiming he violated university policies by failing to inform his superiors of his outside activities. The firing came after Tracy published a blog saying the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School mass slayings were staged by the government to promote gun control.
Claiming wrongful firing, Tracy sued for his job back.
Based on my five months in his class, I found Tracy took his conspiracy theories a step beyond his blogs.
In the 2014 spring semester of my junior year, I registered for a course called “Public Opinion and Modernity,” which journalism majors had to take.
I remember looking at my schedule and saw that Tracy was teaching the class. My first thought was, “Wait, isn’t he that guy who wrote the Sandy Hook conspiracy?”
Everyone at FAU knew James Tracy for his infamous Sandy Hook blog and a class he taught solely on conspiracies. But this wasn’t the conspiracy class. Or so I thought.
The man who viewed the mass slayings at Sandy Hook as a hoax taught me to disregard the media in a media studies program.
And if you didn’t like what he said, too bad. I felt forced to embrace his point of view to get a decent grade.
Even though he argues in court that he didn’t force his students to read his blog, he assigned his own writings, including “Diffusing Conspiracy Panics,” from a compilation book called “Censored 2014: Fearless Speech in Fateful Times.”
We studied conspiracies about the U.S. war on drugs, 9/11, corruption of the food supply and the JFK assassination.
The class discussions were hard for me to endure, because whenever students stated their interpretations I felt that Tracy would find a way to lodge his own opinions — making sure students saw his idea as the best answer. While I believe that’s true of many professors, most aren’t embracing extreme beliefs.
While listening to Tracy, I interpreted his teachings to mean that the media was “brainwashing” the public. He made subtle hints to the class that the media has its own agenda — to hide the truth and side with major corporations.
I wondered how anyone from that class had any interest in pursuing the profession. It almost drove me away.
During one night-class, we had a group discussion about how the media portrayed the nation’s war on drugs. Most students argued Tracy’s position, that the media only showed the government as the good guys even though it was behind many drug deals.
I thought to myself, “Oh great, here we go again. Another conspiracy discussion.”
One of my classmates, who almost always sat next to me, would try very hard not to participate in group discussion to avoid fueling the debate but she knew she had to participate to get a good grade.
One day, she raised her hand and agreed with Tracy’s contention that the media were biased. So, she told Tracy that the federal government put the spotlight on accused drug dealers to cover up the government’s own “crime.”
Tracy looked at her, nodded with approval, and continued teaching.
We spent two class periods watching the 2010 documentary, “A Noble Lie: Oklahoma City 1995.” Again, we weren’t in Tracy’s conspiracy class. This was a required media course.
He assigned us to write a paper on the documentary. To make sure I received a good grade, I didn’t challenge the film’s conclusions but instead went all in, even using the phrase “media brainwashing.”
I pointed out how no federal workers were in the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building when it exploded, killing 168 people. I described how local police responded slowly. I argued that the feds worked with the media on what to report, hiding information from the public.
In short, I accurately repeated the film’s main points even though I felt it went too far.
While I doubted government involvement in such atrocities, I found Tracy’s theories of the influence of corporate ownership on the media more compelling. I almost did not accept an internship in Washington, D.C., that summer because I was afraid my future reporting wouldn’t help others but would rather misinform.
After finishing Tracy’s class that semester, I had to wonder: “Is this class really necessary for my major? Shouldn’t students be focusing more on a less extreme view of the media? Why is FAU letting Tracy teach this class? Do they know what he really is teaching?”
It seemed to me that Tracy wanted to teach students his agenda, not the university’s. Although Tracy testified in court Dec. 1 that his conspiracy blogs didn’t interfere with his work at FAU, the focus of his class showed differently.