After watching Dana White's diatribe against Sherdog.com's Jake Rossen yesterday, I felt it necessary to not only pushback against some of White's claims but also pull back the curtain that covers the operations of the MMA media.
What is the role of the media? If we are to use the above video of White as an indication of his views on the matter, the media exists to serve as a proxy public relations arm for his fight company. While the print journalists among us are likely horrified by that notion, it isn't nearly as controversial as it seems.
The television and radio worlds covering MMA and most other sports operate on a "you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours" basis. Remember the admission by the UFC it had engaged in heavy plugola with Scott Ferrall? The UFC and the other fight companies are all too happy to offer tickets, exclusive guests, ticket giveaways and other incentives for promotional coverage of their events that generally strikes a positive tone.
The print and online media, however, generally do not surrender journalistic integrity for access. Whereas radio and television are more admixtures of media and entertainment, written word media still function as the fourth estate. While all news is admittedly for-profit, the print and online journalists' job is to evaluate which stories are worthy of dissemination (loosely defined as "newsworthy") and to tell them without prejudice. How well they perform that function is obviously a matter of debate, but the key distinction is that their services cannot to be bought, sold or bartered.
Either White does not appreciate this distinction or he does not care. I tend to think it's the latter as he is certainly media savvy enough to accurately gauge the difference. What I am more concerned with is this: how much third party validation does he and the UFC brass need before they stop being sensitive to utterly innocuous criticism? For every Jake Rossen writing a moderately critical piece, there are dozens of writers and bloggers authoring gushing pieces that heap effusive praise on the UFC. That hasn't historically been the norm, but it's the new reality and it's one I trust the UFC appreciates.
The truly problematic aspect of White's rant is the underlying assumption about the role of the MMA media, namely, as facilitators of MMA's success. There is an implied assumption in sports writing - and its manifestation in MMA is particularly bad - that the journalists' work serves to pay homage to the sport. There are a couple of reasons for this. The early adopters who are still around were all fans looking to create the apparati of media where none existed. I consider myself and Nate part of that group.
The other regrettable truth is that there is very little money in MMA reporting or blogging. If this were a celebrity or travel blog, our traffic would garner us far heftier sums than we presently pull in. As such, there is an incentive for those covering the sport to not only document MMA's wild growth, but to cheerlead it as well. In short, the growth of the sport presents an opportunity for financial stability. Much like the vast majority of today's fighters, most of those covering MMA make very little money. A few at the top do ok, but that's about it.
In fact, some of the most lucrative gigs for writers or reporters come from sources that entirely compromise their objectivity: many come from TV stations with exclusive deals with MMA organizations or media created by MMA organizations themselves, e.g. UFC Magazine. And truthfully speaking, my commentary gig with the UWC isn't exactly free from criticism either. Is it any wonder that those in positions of power in MMA view the media less as objective storytellers and more as free labor? I can honestly say I don't blame them.
Rather than accepting a reality where those who cover the sport also love it, I pine for the day when dispassionate editors assign dispassionate journalists an MMA beat to cover. I'm partly romanticizing how media operates, but not entirely. In media outside of sports, those who cover technology, higher education or local crime often do so solely because their editor assigned them to that job. The paper or website needs that coverage and the available writer/reporter fills in for that need. Whether they like covering Google vs. Bing, Stafford loans or recent muggings is immaterial: it's a job and someone's got to do it.
It's also worth observing that while Rossen is a journalist, he is not a reporter. Part of the duty of established media is to also offer interesting and openly subjective commentary outside the confines of strict reporting. Aside from the fact that Rossen has every right to voice his opinion about all topics MMA in that capacity, the reality is segregated opinion content is actually value-add for readers. Strict reporting is an excellent nucleus of operations, but is rarely the sum total of coverage for more established media in any forum.
As for the merits of Rossen's argument, I, too, find it highly dubious that MMA under the UFC's leadership will be the world's largest or most popular sport by 2020. Let be me clear: I'll never count White or Zuffa out. While I have my doubts about White's contention, I'd love to see what they can produce. If the past decade is any indication, it is highly foolish to underestimate White & Co.
To White's credit, I'd say Rossen inelegantly worded his assessment of the UAE's finances, as only Dubai - one of the seven states of the UAE - is in deep financial peril.
But let's also be serious: does White or UFC brass not expect there to be debate or pushback for such a bold proclamation? In the op-ed White insists a controversial sport that he himself admits "is barely scratching the surface" of mainstream popularity is going to warp speed itself into first place prominence across the world in a short ten years. This is intentionally designed to be a provocative claim to attract attention and buzz and yet he also expects everyone to accept this idea credulously? Come on.
Having extensively interviewed and questioned the folks at Sherdog.com who coordinate that site's coverage as well as closely observing their operations for myself for more than five years, the argument that there is inherent bias within Sherdog.com management or staff against the UFC is exceptionally poor. The notion that they are "anti-UFC" is little more than fan proclivities masquerading as journalistic critique.
And what does "anti-UFC" even mean? Unlike political magazines like The Nation or The Weekly Standard who openly promote a particular, identifiable worldview, Sherdog.com exists solely to cover MMA as best it can. If they are surreptitiously disguising their aims as some claim they do, they are doing an awfully good job of it. That doesn't mean they aren't periodically without fault, but that is hardly the same as systemic failure. The only people who make the argument about Sherdog.com's phantom bias either have a vested interest in strict UFC exclusivity or do not understand how MMA media should operate.
I admit I, and virtually everyone on staff here at BloodyElbow.com, is a fan of MMA. Our coverage of MMA is now and will always be biased. I should note that individuals like us, in the absence of traditional media coverage, serve a valuable function. Even as MMA's profile grows and larger media outlets gravitate to the sport, opinion-led aggregation will have a place in the changing media landscape.
But it is inappropriate and downright dangerous to expect media to cheerlead the sport. As it succeeds or fails, the job of the reporters is to document it as such. And the role of the opinion writer is to offer their view in a manner as interesting and insightful as possible, even if it comes across as wrongheaded or prickly. The only master either must serve is that of the truth, wherever it can be found and however it looks.