Controversy sells, even if it’s not real

“Chris Pratt is facing criticism over a T-shirt he was pictured wearing featuring a controversial symbol.”

So read the first line of an article in Yahoo! Entertainment on Tuesday. Actor Chris Pratt, who you may know as Star-Lord from the Guardians of the Galaxy films, apparently wore something that caused him to “face criticism.”

Originally, the article featured the headline “Chris Pratt criticized for ‘white supremacist’ T-shirt.” It has since been changed to read Chris Pratt criticized for T-shirt choice.”

This must have been some t-shirt. So what was this horribly offensive article of clothing? Some sort of radical statement? Was it violent or pornographic? Did it contain crude profanity?

Given the original headline and hyperbolic lede, you can be forgiven for thinking that it was all of the above, only worse.

In reality, though, Pratt was wearing a shirt that had a version of the Gadsden flag on it, with the American flag replacing the field of yellow behind the coiled snake and the words “Don’t Tread On Me.”

Actor Chris Pratt. (AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth)

As I foolishly clicked on this article to read it, I immediately asked myself the two questions that virtually everyone else will ask upon encountering it: Why would this be offensive to anyone? Who was offended?

Yahoo! has the answers, ladies and gentlemen. According to them, the symbol has been “adopted” by “far-right political groups like the Tea Party, as well as gun-toting supporters of the Second Amendment.

It has therefore become a symbol of more conservative and far right individuals and, according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission of the US, it also is ‘sometimes interpreted to convey racially-tinged messages in some contexts.'”

Huh? The entire supposed “controversy” over the Gadsden flag — a controversy I had never heard of — is based on the EEOC saying that the symbol is sometimes, in some contexts “interpreted” (by who, exactly?) to convey “racially-tinged” messages? That’s really all you’ve got?

Pretty thin gruel, to put it kindly.

OK, so then what about the second question? Maybe Yahoo! is just trying to in-artfully describe a major controversy and is grasping and explanatory straws. Wouldn’t be the first stupid, exhausting outrage fest I had seen, even in the last week. Hell, I wrote about such a controversy in these pages just two weeks ago when Colin Kaepernick spiked Nike’s Betsy Ross shoe.

So, maybe the controversy is stupid, but the controversy has to exist, right? So who was criticizing him for wearing it?

It turns out that the story cites — wait for it — six tweets from Twitter users who were complaining about the shirt.

One of this users is a guy named Tim who lives in Australia and has 597 followers. Another is an account that goes by “uss butterscotch” and has 165 followers. Another with the handle “SomeEdgyThingy” has 96 followers.

This is the “controversy,” according to Yahoo! Entertainment. Six people, most of whom are absolutely no one and no one follows them, all of whom are making inane points chirped about Pratt’s t-shirt on Twitter, and that somehow qualifies as a story.

From start to finish, this entire story was an invention of the writer. Nobody is offended by the Gadsden flag. No one was criticizing Pratt. Nobody cares. But the writer knew that a false reality in which people did care could be created, and it would be enough of an emotional curiosity to get people to click.

Now, perhaps you think I’m being a little nitpicky about Yahoo! right now. What’s the big deal, right? It is just a stupid story. Who really cares all that much?

Sadly, what you see in this article is repeated thousands of times a day in not only the internet, but traditional print outlets, television news, and all forms of news delivery.

This story is not an isolated exception to the journalistic mainstream. Stories like this are the mainstream, and have become increasingly so in the last ten years.

Controversy sells. Where it doesn’t exist, it can now be created, and with the aid of a toxic hellscape like Twitter, any semblance of journalistic integrity can be safely discarded. There, you can find anyone saying anything about anything, so if you need a phony story with a salacious headline then you’ve got it!

And the casualty is just innocent people’s reputations, harmless symbols, and a realistic accounting of what is actually — for real — happening in the world around us.

But hey, as long as I can scrape Twitter for garbage to concoct, everything’s cool. Whatever gets the clicks, am I right?

Matthew Gagnon

About Matthew Gagnon

Matthew Gagnon, of Yarmouth, is the Chief Executive Officer of the Maine Heritage Policy Center, a free market policy think tank based in Portland. Prior to Maine Heritage, he served as a senior strategist for the Republican Governors Association in Washington, D.C. Originally from Hampden, he has been involved with Maine politics for more than a decade.