James Tracy on TV

When I met James Tracy in 2003, he wasn’t crazy yet. Last week, he was crying on the witness stand in federal court.

Between then and now, something went slowly haywire.

A decade after I first spoke with him, Tracy made international headlines for insisting the Sandy Hook massacre “never took place” – it was just a “live shooter drill” featuring “crisis actors” hired by the federal government, and it was all covered up by national media.

He later mailed a letter to the parents of a 6-year-old boy who was slain at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012. In it, he demanded they prove their dead son ever existed. He also posted on Facebook that those “phony” parents “have made out very well financially, soliciting contributions from generous yet misinformed Americans.”

That’s not all the crazy. On his weird personal blog, Tracy insisted the 2013 Boston marathon bombing was “finely tuned stagecraft” by the federal government to exert more “government-corporate manipulation.” He retroactively declared the 1993 World Trade Center bombing “was in fact a FBI sting.”

In January 2016, Tracy was finally fired from his job – as a tenured communications professor who taught about the media. That irony was why the story earned worldwide coverage, from The Washington Post to The Jerusalem Post.

Last week, Tracy finally got his day in court. He accused FAU of violating his First Amendment rights by firing him, even though he admitted to:

  • recording his conspiracy-laden podcasts from his office on his work computer.
  • signing an agreement that he wouldn’t mention FAU when espousing his crazy theories – but did it, anyway.
  • failing to submit conflict-of-interest and financial disclosure forms for three years.

His explanation? From the witness stand, “Tracy repeatedly said he had been confused by what he thought were ‘ambiguous’ policies and disclosure forms,” the Sun Sentinel reported last week.

The man who unravels intricate government conspiracies no one else can fathom was confounded by some paperwork? Maybe that’s why “Tracy paused dramatically and sobbed for a few moments” while on the stand.

The trial is expected to wrap up this week. Tracy wants to be reinstated with back pay. While Fox News is the only national media outlet covering the trial, it’s still a fascinating story. Here’s why.

Conspiracy theorists are America’s only truly renewable resource, but Tracy stood out because he was supposedly smart. As Anderson Cooper said on CNN back in 2013…

We wouldn’t mention these conspiracy theories. But it turns out one of the people who’s peddling one version of this conspiracy theory is actually a tenured associate professor at Florida Atlantic University, a state university that gets taxpayers’ money.

When I first met Tracy, he’d just recently earned his PhD at the University of Iowa and been hired as a communications professor at FAU.

FAU is an obscure and mediocre school sandwiched between two better and better-known ones: the University of Miami and the University of Florida in Gainesville. Tracy knew this when he took the job. So did I four years earlier, when I became the part-time adviser to the student newspaper.

A few months after Tracy’s arrival, I invited him to visit the newsroom of the University Press. He spoke to the students passionately about journalism, and we spoke briefly about FAU.

We bonded over our low opinion of the inept administration, but when I invited him to sit on the panel that selects the editor-in-chief, he hesitated. “I’m not going to be here very long,” he told me.

I don’t recall all the details, but he regaled me with his plans to move to more prestigious surroundings within a few years, where he’d write influential books instructing the news media how to fight government attempts to inject propaganda into their growing online efforts.

He also asked me about the resale value of South Florida homes.

Tracy did indeed sit on a couple of panels, enthusiastically asking tough questions and imploring the staff to cover “real news” instead of simply profiling football players. We chatted before and after each panel, and he was slyly arrogant – self-deprecating about all his skills he kept mentioning. He possessed the easy-going attitude of someone just passing through.

When I asked him to join the editor-selection panel for a third time, Tracy was curt and seemed irritated. I thought I had done something wrong, so I asked around. I learned Tracy was becoming decidedly less charming to everyone. He eventually told me the editor-selection panel was “maybe not the best use of my time” because the newspaper wasn’t improving despite his wise counsel.

Only a few months earlier, he’d emailed me, “The UP is looking good and reading well. I particularly enjoyed this week’s cover story.” That would be the last email I ever got from him.

I heard Tracy’s relations with his fellow communications professors grew frostier over the years. As for his students, at least one University Press staffer was always taking at least one of his classes, and their reviews were less glowing as the years passed. When he started teaching a class called “Conspiracy of Culture,” they used words like “obsessed” and even “crazy.”

(Although, to be fair, many students found Tracy fascinating in a shit-show sort of way, while others simply appreciated his fervor – something many professors at middling schools like FAU lack, especially after a decade teaching under-achievers. Two former editors insisted he was the only communications professors who made them think about things from new angles.)

In 2012, Tracy launched his blog, called Memory Hole. Within a couple years, he was pals with every conspiracy theorist in the nation and even appeared on InfoWars, the nation’s pre-eminent fake news outlet.

You don’t need to connect the Deep State dots to see where I’m going here. My theory is simple…

James Tracy was a typical academic with big dreams of prestigious research. When he couldn’t break FAU’s orbit after a decade, there could be only two explanations:

  • “I’m not as talented as I’ve long thought I am.”
  • “FAU – and maybe the world – is plotting against my success.”

Tracy is now 52 years old. He was in his late 40s when he started down the Memory Hole – about the same age when we all start facing our mortality and limitations. Most of us accept that. Some vaguely blame others. A few create elaborate schemes within schemes. And once you’ve been a victim of a conspiracy, you see them everywhere.

Maybe as early as tomorrow, we’ll learn if Tracy gets his job back. If that happens, expect a waiting list for any class he teaches. Students will want to see what he does next. Because if he wins, everyone at FAU expects Tracy to act even crazier.

I doubt he’ll be happier, though. Sure, he’ll have been vindicated in federal court. But he’ll still be stuck at FAU.