CU, Max Karson, JonBenét Ramsey and a sad case of catfight journalism: Westword ought to be ashamed

The header on the story reads this way: CU’s Campus Press Fights for Independence.

The subhead is equally on-point: A contentious faculty meeting points to independence for CU-Boulder’s student newspaper — but at what cost?

But at that point the journalism train jumps the tracks, because the first couple grafs eschew any consideration of the alleged story itself in favor of a gratuitous drive-by snarking from reporter Michael Roberts.

University of Colorado at Boulder journalism professor Michael Tracey has never previously suffered from camera shyness. Indeed, back in August 2006, when bogus confessor John Mark Karr was arrested as a suspect in the JonBenét Ramsey murder due largely to comments he made in correspondence with Tracey, the prof practically vaulted into a media horde gathered at the Boulder Justice Center.

But after spotting a flash during a journalism-department faculty meeting about the future of the Campus Press, an online student publication, Tracey went into high-dudgeon mode. “Ask permission before you take a photograph,” he snapped at me, like a male diva upset that the paparazzi hadn’t given him a chance to pose first.

This is what real reporters might call a hit job.

Listen, if you read S&R with any regularity at all, you know that I’m not afraid of teh snark. I love laying the rhetorical boots to people whose actions and ethics offend my intelligence and any sense of moral decency. Like one of my heroes, Hunter S. Thompson, I try not to let anything get in the way of the truth, not even the facts.

So Roberts and I have that much in common, I guess (except for the “truth” part, which seems not to concern Roberts so much). The difference between us is that I don’t go around masquerading as a legitimate journalist.

The CU/Campus Press/Max Karson story is real and controversial and troubling, so it’s unfortunate that Westword, which I have previously called the only reliable source of journalism in the Denver metro area, couldn’t have, you know, covered the story. Because there is a legit story unfolding here. What’s even more frustrating is that Roberts himself has previously done a credible job reporting on it (see here and here, for instance). But when push came to shove, Westword let its hard-on over Dr. Mike Tracey trump the journalistic imperative.

How gutless.

The most tragic part about it all goes to what I note above – Westword has historically been the only outlet in town you could trust. In the aftermath of Columbine, for instance, both the Denver Post and the Rocky Mountain News got caught with their pants down, admitting that they intentionally lied about the “she said yes” myth that sprung up around Cassie Bernall. Westword and Salon were about the only two places that could be bothered to get the story right, and that earned our local weekly a lot of cred in my book. Even when they couldn’t get a major story right, like with their coverage of US West’s service issues in the late ’90s, you still got the impression that at least they were trying a little harder than the dailies.

I’m not sure exactly why they have a burr under their saddle over Tracey. I mean, he made a lot of noise over the Ramsey case, but in case the editors didn’t notice, he was the only one who got it right, and he got it right almost from day one. Or maybe they did notice and that’s what has them pissed off – I can’t really say. But I’m probably not honor-bound to any more in the way of journalistic ethics in my speculation here than they exhibit in any story where the words “Michael Tracey” occur, am I?

Yes, I know Mike Tracey. Yes, we’re friends. And like any of Mike’s friends, I fully understand that he rubs some people the wrong way. Heck, maybe a majority of the people. He’s not universally loved by his colleagues, some of his students hate him, and so on. I get all that.

But he’s also one of the single smartest human beings I’ve ever met. I know plenty of Tracey haters, and most of them even acknowledge his brilliance. And on the Ramsey case he produced three documentaries that surpassed anything I saw from any and all other news organizations for fact, clarity and reason, and this includes Westword.

As for his involvement in the John Mark Karr case, Westword drags out the trash vocabulary for words like “diva,” but Karr sought him out and the e-mails Karr sent were impossible to ignore. This story is not yet over, I predict, and I guess we’ll see what Westword truly values eventually, won’t we?

Once upon a time Westword was the best journalism you could find in Denver, and some days it still is. Other days it’s the Enquirer, and every once in awhile it indulges itself in pissy-pants vendetta journalism (and note the letter entitled “A Pub Nuisance” here).

I’ve spent the past few years arguing for the potential value of an ethical and responsible journalistic alternative to the “objective” institutional variety that has long since ceased serving anybody but our most cynical PR flaks. I’ve even gone so far as to craft a model for the graduate level study of “interpretive journalism” because I believe that various subjective approaches to reporting are the future of journalism in America, and it’s imperative that it be done right if it’s to inform rather than merely inflame.

This is why irresponsibility and malpractice on the part of Westword, like we see in yesterday’s coverage of Michael Tracey’s personality flaws the Campus Press hearing is so goddamned frustrating.

Dear Editor: you need to do better. Now.

Thanks to Angela Venturo for passing along this story.


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  • Tempest, meet teapot. I’m not talking about your objection to Michael Roberts’ approach, Sam. That’s a legitimate beef, and good for you for calling him out.

    I’m talking about the entire issue with what Max Karson wrote. What everyone seems to be missing here is that Karson is just a guy who’s trying to be funny, but he isn’t funny. That’s not a good thing when you take on very sensitive issues, trying to write satire.

    The Onion could certainly have pulled this off, but not Karson. If I had a moment with the young man, my advice to him would be, “Get serious. Your comic sense sucks.”

  • Yeah. My guess is – and I say this as someone who hasn’t read enough to know for sure and who hasn’t talked to Karson to find out what he thinks he’s doing – is that he’s trying to be a satirist (and maybe even a socially conscious one) but who doesn’t yet have the maturity or ability to quite pull it off.

    Of course, some people thought Swift was serious about that baby-eating thing, too… 🙂

  • chad mckinley

    My Comment Is Can Michael Tracey Be A Suspect In The JonBenet Ramsey Case
    I just want to Ask.

  • No. And this is maybe the dumbest question that has been asked about the case since the murder happened.

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