The Hungry Toad
When CU Professor Michael Tracey isn't lecturing his students on journalism ethics or pounding pints at his off-campus office, he's hunting for JonBenét's killer—turning up the likes of John Mark Karr to feed his obsession.
As a child, Tracey was told he was dumb. Growing up in the blue-collar town of Oldham in northern England, where his grandparents helped raise him, he was a short-attention-spanned kid whose potential wasn’t realized until, he says, he took the school placement exams. He recalls that moment with an air of pride: the day they realized he had a brain.
Academic scores gave him the confidence to set out to earn a Ph.D. He chose media studies on a “whim” one night while, as he puts it, he was drunk at a bar with a friend. He enrolled at the University of Leicester, where he set to work on his first in-depth research project, a 500-plus-page thesis, “The Production of Political Television.”
His first break came when the then-director general of the BBC, Hugh Greene, agreed to let Tracey write a biography about him. Tracey was only 27 years old. He spent the next nine years researching the subject, getting to know him on a personal level.
Greene was a “cocky bastard,” as Tracey tells it, known for his womanizing and I-don’t-give-a-shit-what-you-think attitude. He successfully revamped the BBC, but the broadcasting company retired him in the wake of an “unbuttoned” extramarital affair with a woman named Tatjana. Tracey developed a fondness for Greene and came to view him as a father figure.
The Greene biography was met with moderate success, enabling Tracey to land a position at a media think tank in London. Marriage and three children fell into place. Until then he’d never formally taught a class, but he was a productive researcher (seven books before the age of 40), and had charisma. All this was just enough to convince the higher-ups at the University of Colorado journalism school to hire him as a tenured professor (his current salary is $103,000). Part of Tracey’s CU marching orders was to start the Center for Mass Media Research, a program that Dean Paul Voakes ended once he took office in 2003, because it never got off the ground.
As the media center failed to begin, Tracey’s marriage began to fail. He had an affair with his own Tatjana, Jen, whom he’d met one night at the Toad seven years ago. The affair lasted years before Tracey divorced. He is close to his son from the first marriage, but his two daughters rarely talk to him.
One of the days I visited with Tracey in his campus office, I noticed a copy of the Oct. 12, 2006, issue of Westword. Tracey’s face was on the cover; the story inside eviscerated him, citing the Gigax and Karr fiascos. Seeing me spot the paper on his desk, he said, “I never read it, and I don’t plan on reading it. I don’t care what my critics think of me.” He grabbed the Greene biography off a shelf and read one of the passages aloud, before handing me the copy of the book, as a gift. “[Hugh Greene’s] own preferred culture suggested sin rather than sanctity.”
The Society of Professional Journalists has a code by which they believe journalists should work: Seek truth and report it, minimize harm, act independently, and be accountable. It was this sort of raison d’être that drew me to journalism at the University of Colorado program. I went there to learn how to report truth. It’s why I had signed up for Tracey’s media class, and it’s why, after he dove into his diatribe about the JonBenét Ramsey case on that first day, I dropped his class.
That same autumn in 2004, Tracey was moonlighting as a media critic for the Rocky Mountain News, and wrote a column titled “Truth Takes Back Seat to Distortions.” It was a dig at Dan Rather, who’d aired documents that indicated President Bush had dodged his Texas Air National Guard obligations back in the 1970s. The now-infamous documents were forged. Rather apologized and later resigned. In his column, Tracey used Rather as another metaphor for the failings of journalism:
“Dan Rather had to admit that he couldn’t verify documents that ‘60 Minutes II’ had broadcast, in a stupid rush to publish…This presents a serious problem for the idea of the media within a so-called democracy. We imagine people to be rational, curious, informed, constructing knowledge out of information and decisions out of knowledge. The media are there to provide the information that incubates the knowledge that births a rational world. This is today largely nonsense since we live in an age where the distorted is favored over the true.” It’s a column Tracey could now pen about himself.
Tracey granted me an interview because I was an alumnus. Because I was young. And green. During one of our conversations he suggested I watch a movie called Shadowlands—the story of a British writer/professor and his love affair with a young American “fan.”
Only two years after graduating, when I returned to the halls of the CU J-school, I found the same man whose class I had dropped—not so much the crass opportunist his critics saw from afar, but rather a man unmoored, trying to solve the mystery of a murdered little girl and maybe, in so doing, find himself.
After listening to Tracey over the course of several weeks, I asked him to define his legacy. His answer came in an e-mail: “That’s for you and other people to decide.” Rather than extract some clarity, he once again sidestepped into yet another theoretical debate.
I’m sitting across from Tracey at our secret meeting at the Hungry Toad, waiting to hear the information about Karr that’s so interesting the professor could only share it in person. Tracey’s beer arrives. He’s in the habit of ordering half pints, rather than full ones, though he probably ends up drinking the same amount of alcohol in the end. Finally, he starts to talk.
He’s heard from David Mills. A production crew from “48 Hours” had an interview with federal agents who admitted that John Mark Karr was still under investigation for the murder of JonBenét Ramsey. Tracey tells me he hasn’t confirmed whether it’s really true. It’s all going to be on television in a couple weeks, he says. Anyway, he’s energized by the new development, and he can’t stop talking. Meanwhile, Jen has started doodling in her notebook. Tracey’s son’s eyes have drifted up to the football game on the television. Even Paul, the JonBenét playwright, is zoning out. And I realize that I’m the only one still listening.