CU professor Michael Tracey teaches his classes the ethics of journalism. But after years of inserting himself into the JonBenét Ramsey investigation, Tracey may need to read a page out of his own lesson plan.
It’s 7 p.m. on a school night and professor Michael Tracey is tipsy again. Leaning over the table, his face red from the alcohol or the conversation, or more likely from both, he launches into a monologue about his favorite topic: JonBenét Ramsey.
It was 10 years ago this December that the 6-year-old beauty queen was brutally murdered inside her family’s Boulder home and the three-ring circus surrounding the tragedy began. And throughout it all, it has been Tracey, a University of Colorado journalism professor, who has served as the controversial ringleader. Stepping into the macabre spotlight, he’s built a career and gained international fame and infamy.
For his contributions to the unsolved homicide, Tracey has been exalted and eviscerated, especially in the last few months—Tracey is the one who cultivated the “confession” of the enigmatic bust of a suspect that was John Mark Karr. Local and national media pundits like Denver radio talk-show host Peter Boyles once again took to calling the professor an opportunist, claiming he has perpetuated the JonBenét mystery for his own benefit. Others, like Paul Voakes, the dean of CU’s journalism school, defended Tracey as an altruistic investigator.
On this late autumn night, I’m with Tracey at the Hungry Toad, north Boulder’s British bar. It’s where the 58-year-old has been drinking for nearly 20 years, since he emigrated with his family from England. Tracey calls the Toad his “downtown office;” he’s famous campuswide for being the professor who holds office hours at a bar. Most Tuesday and Thursday nights you’ll find him here, throwing back pints and solving the world’s problems with a revolving posse of admiring students, armchair scholars, Ramsey aficionados, and drunks.
Tonight, he’s surrounded by the few people he believes he can trust: his 23-year-old son, the eldest of three children from his first marriage; Tracey’s longtime pal Paul Christman, who’s written a play about JonBenét’s murder; and his girlfriend, Jen Davis, who, since Tracey dragged Karr from obscurity, has acted as her boyfriend’s publicist. Tracey asked me to join them at the Toad for what he described as a secret meeting. “I’ve got interesting information about Karr in Thailand,” he had called to tell me. “But we can’t talk about it on the phone. Meet me at the Toad.”
So far, Tracey’s already polished off three pints of Fuller’s and his accent has grown stronger, his voice louder. His son, who until now has been busy text messaging, attempts to lighten the mood: “You’ve probably noticed my dad gets passionate about stuff. You should see him when he can’t get the remote control to work.” The table erupts into laughter. Tracey smiles coyly at me, as if to convey, See what I have to deal with? Then he motions to the waitress for another beer.
A couple of weeks earlier, in his campus office, Tracey’s emotional wheels are spinning from the Karr debacle; the professor is feverishly recounting his career highlights from the past 10 years—sounding like a man desperately trying to justify himself. Around him, the four walls of his office are covered with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves swelling with the papers and books he’s stockpiled during his tenure as a professor. One entire shelf is dedicated to the books and articles he’s written. Lately he’s been working on his ninth book—this one about JonBenét. The manuscript was 50,000 words at last count, only a third finished, yet he says he’s already got an agent trying to sell it.
On top of a filing cabinet there’s a research binder labeled “Mothers Who Kill Their Children.” At the foot of his desk there’s a pile of VHS tapes, copies of the three JonBenét documentaries Tracey has coproduced. On his desk, there is a pair of white, porcelain baby shoes; written in gold paint on the toes: “JonBenét 1996”—a gift from one of the investigators on the case.
Tracey pulls out the autopsy pictures of JonBenét’s tiny, obviously abused corpse. The pictures, he says, are a reminder of what he’s fighting for. He points to a close-up shot of JonBenét’s wounded neck—the deep, red gashes caused by a makeshift garrote the killer used to restrain her while he penetrated her, just before killing the child. Tracey feverishly flips to another picture, this one of JonBenét’s bludgeoned skull, an enormous crack through the middle.
With great theatrical flair, he tosses the pictures across the desk to me and begins to make his case, not so much to me but more like he’s addressing any and all critics who would dare to question him. “That penetration was real. There is the general sense that there was an intruder.
“You don’t sort of, in your 40s, become a homicidal maniac,” he continues, referring to JonBenét’s now deceased mother, Patsy. “Patsy doesn’t suddenly, out of nowhere, have the capacity to do that [crime]. She may be lacking in taste—the pageants are not my style—but nothing about her would suggest this kind of behavior.” He pounds his fist at the end of every sentence. “If I have to spend the rest of my life telling America one by one that the Ramseys didn’t do it, I will.” He leans back in his chair.
Tracey’s wearing what he wears almost every day: worn-out jeans, sport sandals, and a wrinkled cotton shirt, unbuttoned one too many times. He has that I’ve-just-been-on-a-hike tan that many CU professors enjoy. His wavy, silver hair is glazed with an unctuous gel. “There are times when I feel like a mini-Clinton,” Tracey says defiantly. “He was one of those characters who people either really loathed or liked. And I sometimes feel like I’m in that position. If you like the Ramseys, you like me. If you don’t like them, you hate me.”
Considering the myriad cul-de-sacs and characters of the JonBenét saga, it’s easy to forget how Tracey got involved in the first place. Almost from the very moment back in December 1996, the day after Christmas, when John Ramsey discovered the mangled body of his 6-year-old daughter in the basement of their Boulder home, he and his wife were considered prime suspects. Those were the days you could overhear someone at a cocktail party say, between sips of Chardonnay, “I just know that trashy Patsy did it. You can see it in her eyes.” On “The Geraldo Rivera Show,” a staged jury declared John and Patsy were “liable” (read: guilty).
Watching this all unfold from its Boulder epicenter, Tracey decided to weigh in on the case. A media scholar by training, he saw the Ramsey story as a perfect example of a flawed American media, the broken Fourth Estate, and he wrote an op-ed piece for the Boulder Daily Camera. Titled “Media-Saturated Culture Too Quick to Judge Ramseys,” Tracey’s article chided the press for its sensational coverage, its endless imagery of a bedazzled JonBenét, and its rush to judgment, as well as the consumers who devoured it all. He asked society to step back, take a breath, and grant the Ramseys their basic inalienable right: the presumption of innocence. “If I wrote a scholarly article about the media coverage, who the hell was going to read it?” Tracey has said about his work. “The choice I made, to engage people, was to get in the boxing ring. That’s where the debate is.”
John Ramsey’s attorney Bryan Morgan in Boulder read the op-ed piece. He picked up the phone to thank Tracey for his refreshing viewpoint. And over the next few months, Morgan says, Tracey convinced the lawyer to talk to his clients about doing an interview.
The embattled Ramseys hadn’t granted a formal interview in months, not since a horribly botched press conference in May 1997, when the Ramseys had insisted they didn’t do it; to which the whole world responded, Oh, yes you did! Suspicion of their guilt intensified, especially in Boulder, eventually running the Ramseys and their son out of Colorado, to relatives in Atlanta. Until Tracey’s op-ed, John and Patsy, adhering to the counsel of their attorney, avoided the media.
The Ramseys agreed to sit down with Tracey. Getting the couple to talk, particularly with a grand jury yet to convene and perhaps indict them for murder, was a journalistic coup, not to mention a potential gold mine. The professor, touting himself as an unbiased scholar, offered them a safe platform from which they could tell their side of the story, and John and Patsy committed to cooperating with the interview. Tracey called his friend David Mills, a television producer back in England known for his work at the U.K.’s Granada news production company, and told him to get on the first plane to America. They all met at the Ramseys’ new home in Atlanta to work out the details of the interview.
The resulting documentary, “Who Killed JonBenét?”, aired on Britain’s publicly owned Channel 4 in July 1998. In their Atlanta home, with Patsy in a mock-turtleneck sweater retelling tear-filled memories of JonBenét, the Ramseys indeed appeared to be parents in mourning, not savage killers. Their friends and family, also interviewed, appeared supportive, too. Even John Ramsey’s ex-wife, with whom he had two children, was exceedingly cordial, insisting he was incapable of such violence.
The biggest takeaway, though, was when the Ramseys challenged predominate misgivings about them. Point by point, they answered questions that had been frequently raised by the tabloid media. You hired a publicist and a lawyer soon after the murder, surely that means you’re guilty. We hired a lawyer because it was becoming clear the police saw us as prime suspects. It was our right to seek legal counsel. Our lawyer hired the publicist—to field all those calls from journalists. And so on…
The program, produced by Mills’ private company, Mills Production Ltd., with the help of two reporters from Newsweek, sold for a relatively modest $150,000. In August 1998, after it aired in Britain, Denver’s NBC affiliate, KUSA, aired it without commercials. The A&E network later broadcast the show, retitled, “The Case of JonBenét: The Media vs. The Ramseys.” Mills says that, in total, their personal payday for the production was about $25,000. If they really wanted to, Tracey says, he and Mills could’ve made millions with the interview footage, but they refused to sell anything but the whole documentary.
But Tracey and Mills wanted to maintain control over their message; that was the whole point. “We had to [make that documentary] because what was happening was wrong,” Tracey says. “The story of JonBenét is a wonderful metaphor for a larger problem…. It was wrong in moral terms, it was wrong in professional terms, and it was wrong in constitutional terms. And so that’s how I felt, and that was what I was going to say.”
Critics of the documentary faulted Tracey and Mills for, among other things, the timing of the production, as it aired on KUSA only one month before the grand jury convened in Boulder and chose not to indict. However, beneath the controversy, Tracey’s thesis was rooted in a valid point: The Ramseys were entitled to the presumption of innocence. The problems for Tracey, and for that matter, for law enforcement, for the media, and for society in general, began when Tracey no longer had a point to make, yet kept talking—when he began concocting stories and coaching “suspects.”
It’s last October, and John “Steve” Gigax puts me on hold; the timer on his kiln has just gone off and he needs to remove all the Nazi-themed rings from the heat. Jewelry making used to be 52-year-old Gigax’s hobby, but because of Tracey, Gigax has had to quit his printing factory job in Indiana; the jewelry gig’s the only career he has left.
After Tracey made that first documentary, the professor became obsessed with the JonBenét case. “I got this sense,” Tracey says, “that the investigation was dying, that it was going away. So David and I thought we didn’t want it to go away. Last time we checked, no one had been charged with killing her.” The two men collaborated on a second documentary, “Who Killed the Pageant Queen?” Now they had set out to prove someone other than John and Patsy, someone from the outside, broke into the house and killed JonBenét.
The program was based on the research of Detective Lou Smit, a seasoned Colorado Springs crime investigator who had worked with the Boulder DA’s office on the JonBenét case. For Tracey to cast 71-year-old Smit as the star of the documentary made perfect sense: Smit had quit the DA’s team in September 1998, with a much-publicized resignation letter that read, “I find that I cannot in good conscience be a part of the persecution of innocent people.”
The documentary followed Smit as he outlined his theory. He used pictures from the crime scene, expert witness testimony, and even demonstration—crawling through the Ramseys’ basement window himself—to demonstrate how easy it would have been for someone to enter the Ramseys’ house. The documentary aired in July 2001 in England, and a year later in the States on Court TV. For each sale of this production, Mills says, he and Tracey earned about $15,000 apiece.
Tracey was lambasted for making a documentary based on the theories of one investigator. At least one enraged viewer, Fleet White Jr., who was cleared as a suspect and was an estranged friend of John Ramsey’s, wrote to the University of Colorado, demanding Tracey’s termination.
The criticism only emboldened Tracey. In 2001, Mills and Tracey, now both convinced of the intruder theory, made a third documentary, “Who Killed the Pageant Queen? The Prime Suspect.” There had been a number of unsolved crimes in Boulder in 1996 and 1997 (the time of JonBenét’s killing): a murder, burglaries, and even the sexual assault of another young girl. Mills and Tracey figured if one person was tied to all of those crimes, it would make for a likely JonBenét murder suspect.
Mills and Tracey zeroed in on a man they did not identify. They depicted him as sinister figure who prowled the streets of Boulder at night dressed in a black ninja outfit, and built a case supporting their theory that this man may have killed JonBenét. Two men identified on camera as the mystery man’s friends even hinted that, yes, he was the murderer.
According to the documentary, a group of “independent investigators” was hot on his trail. A court document from one of his previous arrests was displayed on camera to prove that he existed, as if that proved so much more. While the documentary did not reveal the man’s name, redacting it from the document, the case number was visible. One amateur sleuth used basic research skills and Google to trace the document to Gigax—who, according to the Boulder DA’s office, never had been nor ever would be under investigation for the murder of JonBenét.
But that fact didn’t stop the effects of Tracey’s fiction. After the program’s 2004 broadcast, Gigax’s e-mail inbox filled with correspondence from as far away as Scotland, and all had the same message: A television program had just aired in Britain in which he, Gigax, was being implicated in the murder of that little girl in Boulder.
With a criminal record of menacing and attempted sexual assault, Gigax had left Boulder more than 10 years earlier, months before JonBenét’s murder, to clean up his act. He’d gone to Indiana to escape from the drugs, the alcohol, and the unsavory crew he rolled with at the trailer park where he lived in Boulder. He wanted to leave behind the stigma of a drunken altercation that had put him on house arrest. He wanted to go home and reconnect with his estranged son.
On the phone with me, Gigax spends an hour defending himself from charges he should never have had to face. He cites unassailable alibis (including credit card receipts) that put him in Indiana around the time of the murder. Today Gigax wants to know: Why the hell would Tracey blame him for a murder that he couldn’t possibly have committed?
“I live a nice, clean, decent life here,” Gigax says. “I live in a small town where there isn’t even a stoplight, a store, or a gas station. These are homespun people I live with, and I’m an outsider; it took a while to build relationships,” he says. “But since the media started calling me, it’s gotten weird.” So weird that he had to quit his job at the factory. “That was the kind of job where people ‘accidentally’ die,” he says, completely serious. “I worked with a bunch of tobacco-chewing, stock-car-driving, good ol’ boys. If they ever caught wind that I was a suspect in the murder of JonBenét, well…”
David Mills takes the blame for the Gigax blunder, insisting that Tracey had nothing to do with it. Never mind that they’d formulated the thesis for the documentary together, Mills says it was his decision to go with Gigax. “Tracey is the thinker, and I’m the technician,” Mills says, adding that Tracey wasn’t present when Mills edited the documentary in England. “If I could talk to Mr. Gigax right now, I would apologize. I am desperately sorry that I put something on screen that revealed him.” Mills removed the direct references to Gigax before the program aired in the United States later that year.
Tracey isn’t as remorseful as his colleague. “I’ve spent my whole life trying to see what the evidence tells me. It doesn’t mean I always get it right. In the kind of work I do, things are open to interpretation. But at the very basics, it’s what I know. So what it became was a metaphor for everything that wasn’t done in the investigation, about leads that weren’t being followed.”
When I first met with Michael Tracey at the bar to talk with him for this story, his girlfriend, Jen, showed me a two-inch-thick stack of business cards; they were from journalists all over the world who wanted to talk with him about his role in the JonBenét Ramsey investigation, specifically, about the story of him and John Mark Karr. Tracey turned them all down and was agreeing to talk with me, he said, because I was an alumnus of the CU journalism program. “Of course I will talk to a former student.”
I was a graduate student at the University of Colorado, working towards a master’s degree in print journalism in 2004, and that August I signed up for a media-studies class, taught by Tracey, whom I’d heard was one of the program’s most charismatic instructors. I arrived at his classroom on that first day expecting guidance on journalistic ethics, figuring Tracey would take us through the moral quandaries and professional responsibilities wrapped up in benchmark works like All the President’s Men and found in cautionary tales such as Janet Malcolm’s The Journalist and the Murderer. From the murkiness of journalism, I expected, Professor Tracey would reach in and extract for us some clarity. Instead, he immediately led us into his JonBenét house of mirrors, launching into a seemingly endless diatribe about the case. No one had paid any attention to that story in more than five years. Yet, that fall marked the release of Tracey’s third documentary—the Gigax “metaphor.” And unbeknownst to any of us seated before him, Tracey had already struck up a conversation with a guy who called himself “Daxis,” the man who would be unveiled to the world as John Mark Karr, another prime suspect.
The first time Tracey saw live footage of Karr was the same moment the rest of America did. It was on television, during that bizarre, impromptu press conference in Thailand where Karr, then in custody after “confessing” to JonBenét’s murder, feigned surprise that he’d been caught—even as his body language screamed that he loved the attention. “I am so very sorry for what happened to JonBenet,” he said sheepishly, as if he himself were a child. “Her death was an accident.” Then he was swept away in the churning sea of reporters and popping camera flashes.
In the days that followed, as Karr was extradited and made the trek from Thailand to Boulder for the DNA test that would clear him of the crime, the media industry thrived on Karr like he was oxygen. Cable news networks and local talk-radio stations filled their 24-hour schedules with handwriting analysts, speculating whether Karr could have written the ransom note found at the crime scene, and psychologists guessing whether Karr’s past could have driven him to this kind of behavior. Journalists on the plane with him from Thailand gave reports on what Karr ordered for dinner and how many times he used the bathroom. Papers across the country, bumped other, “less important” news stories, like President Bush’s wiretapping program or the Israel/Lebanon conflict, to page two, to make room for this breaking news. Newspaper sales and broadcast news ratings soared.
Tracey met Karr via e-mail, back in April 2002. Writing from an undisclosed foreign country and using the name “D” (later “Daxis”), Karr used a handful of peculiar e-mail addresses, including December1996@hushmail.com. In his early e-mails to Tracey, Daxis wrote that he was interested in the case and admired Tracey’s documentaries. Tracey heard from these whack jobs all the time. But then Daxis hinted he had something to reveal about how JonBenét was killed. Tracey started forwarding the e-mails to Lou Smit, who’d been asked back on the Ramsey case by the new Boulder DA, Mary Lacy.
Because Daxis hadn’t given any concrete information on the murder, nor revealed his name or location, the DA’s office couldn’t do anything. Smit told Tracey to hang in there and keep talking to Daxis, just in case something came up. “Personally, [Karr] was not at the top of my [suspect] list,” Smit says, “but when you have a lead you have to follow it…. If you have a man confessing to a murder, you need to get law enforcement in this.”
During the next three years, Daxis’ e-mails came more frequently, and Daxis, as Tracey puts it, became more “needy.” When Daxis hinted that he might show up at the Ramseys’ vacation home in Michigan, Tracey interpreted it as a threat. With the help of the Ramseys’ attorney, in May 2006, he got these e-mails into the hands of Lacy, who then started her investigation. “We believed we had to look into Mr. Karr when he started stating that it was he who committed the murder,” Lacy wrote in a recent e-mail statement.
Over the course of the next three months, Karr and Tracey e-mailed or telephoned on a daily basis, with Boulder investigators monitoring and sometimes coaching on Tracey what to say. They told him to do anything it took to keep Daxis on the phone so he didn’t disappear, so they could find out who he was. They advised him to draw out Daxis with conversation that excited him until he eventually confessed.
Sensing that the graphic exchanges and the mental chess of it all might be taking a toll on Tracey’s mental health, the DA’s office offered to take him off the case and replace him with an agent. Tracey resisted. “I knew [Daxis] would spot that in a second,” he says. “We were so much in each other’s heads.”
The e-mails between the two men would total about 1,400 pages. There were more than 10 hour-long telephone calls, too. Both are full of contradictions and red flags. Tracey’s critics have accused him of “grooming Karr into confession,” not in pursuit of justice but in chasing fame and book deals. One of the most memorable details from JonBenét’s crime scene was the blanket draped over her body, but in the e-mails it appears that Karr didn’t remember it. After Tracey jogged his memory, saying, “You did cover her with a light coloured blanket,” Karr wrote, “Thank God. I couldn’t quite remember that.”
The morning of Aug. 17, 2006, Boulder DA Mary Lacy held a press conference announcing the arrest of John Mark Karr in Thailand. While her words cautioned the media that this was still an ongoing investigation, there was an air of self-congratulatory backslapping among the Boulder authorities, the media, and Tracey. Wearing a sport coat and an enormous grin for his triumphant moment, the journalism professor gladly fielded questions from the swarming media. Then came the DNA test, the science proving Karr did not kill JonBenét, along with the testimony putting Karr with his relatives the night of JonBenét’s murder.
Only 12 days after that first press conference, Lacy held a second, announcing Karr was not the guy. They had been wrong. In other words, Tracey had been wrong. John Ramsey was grateful to Tracey for his efforts. “John is deeply appreciative [of Michael Tracey],” says Ramsey attorney Morgan. “He followed through with a lead and it was hard on him.”
The media, however, were left seething. Because they’d been stuck out in Boulder for a non-story, or because they’d gone on a wild goose chase to Thailand and back— because they’d been exposed as sensationalists. And because the professor who’d self-righteously criticized them for precisely this behavior in the past was the one now responsible for it all. At the second press conference, they would have wanted the professor’s head, and Tracey knew it. He went to teach class instead.
Tracey’s critics, like KHOW’s Boyles, the local weekly newspaper Westword, and online Ramsey sleuths, once again pounced on him, arguing that his endgame wasn’t solving the case; it was satiating his ego.
Months later, I ask Tracey about the backlash. Seated behind his office desk, he practically shouts: “People don’t realize it was an absolute nightmare, to listen to this stuff and deal with this guy, this control freak, telling me how he killed her, and about his relationships with girls. It was a fucking nightmare. This is what infuriates me—when people imply I’m doing it for profit or it was all a game. Bullshit. Total bullshit. Day after day, week after week, having to listen to this stuff and having to pretend it was OK, because that was the only way to keep him talking? It was tiring and an intense mind game.” Regaining his composure, he adds, “But I’d do it again, if I felt there was a lead that needed to be followed,” sounding a lot like he does when explaining away Gigax.
Whispering under his breath, he dramatically pauses, looks out the window, and says, “Oh, Daxis, why?” Which raises that other often asked question: Oh, Tracey, why?
On Oct. 16, 2006, riding out what hopefully was the last of his 15 Minutes, Karr appeared on “Larry King Live.” After being cleared in Boulder, then carted to California for child pornography charges and released due to lack of evidence, he was a free man. In one of the revealing moments of the show, Karr, almost as if offering an explanation for why he confessed to a murder he did not commit, told Larry King: “When I was walking through that pool of reporters, taking all those photos, I thought to myself, ‘Why am I not walking through this pool of reporters because I am a good, wonderful person, to be acknowledged for being a good, wonderful person?’”
A good person. For Karr being good wasn’t enough to get him the attention he desired, and that is perhaps what makes Karr and Tracey more alike than either of them realizes. Tracey was only 4 years old when his father, John Tracey, 31, a member of England’s Royal Air Force, died instantly in a plane crash. Tracey still carries a photo of his father in his wallet. It’s a worn-down picture of a young, uniformed man who died with his full potential unrealized, a man who died anonymously.
Looking at the picture, Tracey gets introspective. “I can be very hot. I’m less so now, but for a long time, looking back, I was very aggressive, about my work, women, alcohol.”
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.