U.S. media took a bold stand against racist tweets by the president of the United States this week, with much of it objectively calling Donald Trump’s behavior “racist” after resisting that label in its news coverage for years.
On Tuesday, a Yahoo piece did its best to undermine the whole exercise.
Yahoo Movies U.K. published a story Tuesday night headlined, “Chris Pratt criticised for ‘white supremacist’ T-shirt.” (You can see an archived version here; I’m not linking the original clickbait.) The story relies on six tweets from Twitter users who found the actor’s shirt featuring a modified Gadsden flag to be problematic or even racist. One user called it a “white supremacist dogwhistle,” while others suggested Pratt might sympathize with the tea party or associate with bigots and transphobia. The combined followers of these six accounts? Fewer than 19,000 people.
Most of those involved seem to have had second thoughts about the whole thing. The story now appears without the author’s byline and with a toned-down headline — “Chris Pratt criticised for T-shirt choice” — and three of the six Twitter users cited appear to have deleted their tweets raising concerns.
The problems with the article are evident and were quickly pointed out Tuesday night by journalists spanning the political spectrum. The Gadsden flag was commandeered by the tea party about a decade ago as a symbol of its anti-big-government movement, but it dates to the American Revolution — and concerns about another overbearing government overseas. Given the progression from the tea party to the Trump presidency and his increasingly overt appeals to nativism and white identity politics, it’s no surprise some people are turned off by the symbol.
And it’s entirely possible for the meaning of well-known symbols to shift as culture evolves. One case in point is the swastika, which before World War II was best known as an important symbol in the Buddhist faith and was used by commercial brands but today is acknowledged as perhaps the world’s most pervasive hate symbol. More recently, the Confederate flag has fallen out of favor nationwide as the country has come to acknowledge its association with a racist proslavery secession movement from the Civil War era. And just a couple of weeks ago, Nike pulled a sneaker featuring the “Betsy Ross flag,” after Colin Kaepernick reportedly raised concerns about its ties to an era in which the United States had slaves.
There was also plenty of pushback on the “Betsy Ross flag” episode. Conservative media argued it was a corporate capitulation to political correctness and to Kaepernick, a much-derided figure for his protests of racial injustice during the national anthem when he was an NFL player. The Anti-Defamation League even downplayed the flag’s ties to racism and extremists.
Similarly, there was some controversy in 2016 after a Postal Service employee argued that a co-worker wearing a Gadsden flag hat amounted to racial harassment. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission didn’t take a firm stand but said, “It is clear that the Gadsden Flag originated in the Revolutionary War in a nonracial context."
But however you felt about the Betsy Ross flag episode, the would-be Gadsden flag controversy is even more tenuous. With the Betsy Ross flag, we were talking about a major corporation taking a controversial stand; with Pratt’s Gadsden flag T-shirt, we’re talking about half a dozen people posting on social media. Even the one who invoked white supremacism called it a “dogwhistle” rather than a direct symbol.
And the whole thing is completely counterproductive when it comes to the debate we’re having right now. It makes the media look rabid for this controversy and for more symbols to associate with racism. It allows defenders of Trump’s racist tweets to point to the Yahoo story and say: “See, look how out of touch these people are! They see racism everywhere.”
That sentiment should not be attached to the broader mainstream media, but it will be. “Fox & Friends” mentioned the story on Wednesday morning, Sean Hannity has now weighed in, and more will surely follow. Often left out will be the journalists of all stripes crying foul over the piece’s publication, along with the fact that it was published by the U.K. Movies division of Yahoo, not its U.S. political journalists. It will be used in the service of defending Trump’s conduct, despite the his sentiment being indisputably and historically directly tied to racism.
It may not ultimately define the debate, but it certainly doesn’t help.