Made for Each Other

The Karr fiasco is over, but Michael Tracey's quest for unlikely suspects in the Ramsey case goes on and on.

Tracey became the director of CU's Center for Mass Media Research, which was supposed to trawl for grants and provide opportunities for faculty research. But according to evaluations by the journalism school's outside accreditation team, the concept never took off. A 1992 report noted that the center "does not appear to have met its promise." Another report, six years later, found that "the CMMR appears to be an entity in name only." The current journalism dean, Paul Voakes, pulled the plug on the inactive operation shortly after his arrival three years ago.

"I thought that whatever materials we had for the school ought not to be referencing the center," Voakes explains, "because the center hadn't produced any work, that I could tell, in recent years."

Tracey didn't respond to questions about the center. But he contributed in other ways to the journalism school's development over the past eighteen years. He teaches two courses a semester, and many students consider him one of their most dynamic instructors. He was instrumental in launching the school's much-praised Center for Environmental Journalism. He's currently the fourth-highest paid of the school's six full professors -- and the only one to recognize that the media coverage of the Ramsey murder, which occurred just a few blocks from the campus, presented a matter for serious study.

Collaborators: Professor Michael Tracey, with John Mark Karr inset
image: Doug Pensinger/Getty Images. Photo illustration
Collaborators: Professor Michael Tracey, with John Mark Karr inset


See also:
Special John Mark Karr/Michael Tracey archive
With creepy documents and weird phone calls
Hear the former JonBenet Ramsey suspect for yourself
All at Denver Westword

In 1997, less than nine months after the murder, Tracey wrote an op-ed piece for the Daily Camera headlined "Media-Saturated Culture Quick to Judge Ramseys." He denounced the rabid coverage and the presumably puerile, benighted audience that ate it up. He was promptly contacted by Ramsey attorney Bryan Morgan, who told him that Patsy wanted to talk to his journalism class about her media ordeal. A bit taken aback, Tracey soon came up with another idea: Why not make a documentary, with the Ramseys' help, about all the inaccurate, lynch-mob reporting on the case?

Their attorneys were understandably dubious about letting the Ramseys be interviewed, even under the most benign conditions. But a deal was soon drawn up in writing. The Ramseys would not be paid or have any editorial control; the film wouldn't air in the United States as long as there was a possibility of a grand jury. Tracey knew little about making documentaries, but years before, he'd been interviewed by David Mills, a respected British TV producer known for documentaries on education, and the two had become good friends. Mills agreed to co-produce the project, which was soon sold to Britain's Channel 4 for $320,000.

The program, Who Killed JonBenet?, aired in the United Kingdom in the summer of 1998. Tracey was unhappy with the network's title, since the documentary scarcely addresses that question; it's primarily a critique of several media myths surrounding the case, such as the mistaken notion that an intruder couldn't have committed the crime because there were no footprints in the snow around the house.

"It took us about three weeks to knock down every major story that was being told in the media about that case," Mills recalls. "That was one of the most disturbing experiences of my life."

Actually, the documentary doesn't tackle every major story about the case. Most of the straw men it knocks down are absurd tabloid inventions about John and Patsy Ramsey that were largely ignored by the mainstream coverage, yet the producers' thesis is that there's no difference between the gutter media and the "respectable" press. The Ramseys are trotted out occasionally to denounce the media and deny that they're child molesters, but tough questions about their own behavior and the criminal investigation are never posed.

"We didn't know what the police evidence was," Mills says. "We made a personal judgment, from getting to know them, that they couldn't possibly have done it."

Mills says his production company obtained a release from the Ramseys that allowed the documentary to air, first on local TV in Denver that August, then on the A&E cable network on September 28, 1998 -- two weeks after a grand jury began to hear evidence in the case. Both the timing and the content drew sharp criticism. Talk-show host Peter Boyles and then-Denver Post columnist Chuck Green, two frequent Ramsey critics, described the film as a "crockumentary" and a Ramsey infomercial.

Fleet White Jr., a former friend of the Ramseys who'd split with them shortly after the murder, was even more incensed. He and his wife Priscilla wrote to the CU Board of Regents, questioning Tracey's competence and demanding an investigation. "The program was a lopsided and biased attempt to generate public sympathy for the Ramseys and to reinforce the notion that an intruder murdered JonBenet," they wrote. "Mr. Tracey was attempting to deflect suspicion from the Ramseys on the eve of the grand jury investigation."

Nothing came of the Whites' demands. Tracey, who claims to love a good argument, seemed energized by the criticism. He insisted he'd done what he set out to do, which was to expose the woeful shortcomings of the coverage of the case. The suggestion that he was cashing in on the murder was ridiculous; the initial sale in the U.K. barely covered costs of production, he explained, and a big chunk of the American sale had gone to Channel 4. What was left had been divided among Mills, Tracey and two additional producers from Newsweek. "I wish I had made some bloody money," Tracey groused to a reporter from the Boulder Planet. "It's been an absolute nightmare."

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