Does It Matter if the UFC Lies to the Media, Fans?

via urdirt.com

That depends on your priorities.

Lying to the press is never a good idea. In the information age, falsehoods can come back to haunt you and severely undermine your credibility. Tell a lie before all of the facts are out and an enterprising reporter can make you pay. But that's actually not what happened with the UFC and the main event for UFC 115. The UFC was much more brazen. Rather than lie and work to cover up details they didn't want disseminated, the UFC deliberately went on the record in interviews in print, radio and online saying words and spreading messages they knew to be false. That means they actually incorporated the unwitting press into their plans to present an untrue narrative to fans and other interested stakeholders despite numerous published reports that the information the UFC was pedaling was false.

Why? While the UFC has yet to issue any statement explaining the matter, the clear answer is to ostensibly protect the results of the new season of "The Ultimate Fighter". That was the choice, wasn't it? Either tell the truth and spoil the show or lie and preserve some measure of interest in a Liddell vs. Ortiz 3 match-up, while switching to Franklin vs. Liddell when tickets had to go on sale.

Except that wasn't the choice and to suggest as much is to issue a completely false dichotomy. It takes a serious poverty of imagination and amateur PR skills to look at the UFC's predicament and conclude lying is the only serviceable option. By definition, lying is never the serviceable option. The benefits are too small and the costs are too great. Any experienced PR team (and certainly any the UFC can hire or afford) knows a) you undermine your credibility to those media outlets when you lie (especially so brazenly) and b) why undermine your institutional credibility when you can offer a comment about the matter that leaves wiggle room? It's absolutely common practice with a high degree of historical success particularly for those with the most to gain or most to lose.

Within the ranks of the MMA community I often hear that pure, unadulterated candor and basic, meat and potatoes language is a welcome relief from the scripted language of other sports leagues' executives. As refreshing as conversational language may appear in the mouths of the powerful, there's a reason the overwhelming majority of them don't use it for business matters (hint: the answer isn't personality differences). The core problem is that black and white language is critically limited in it's application. There is such a thing as nuanced and sophisticated messaging and it's used because it's ultra helpful in sticky situations, especially when there's money on the line or the stakes are high. Basic language and basic decision-making paradigms are useful, but only in basic situations.

Not everyone within the media agrees with the UFC's decision. Michael David Smith of UFC-credentialed MMA Fighting professionally expresses his disappointment with the UFC's decision to lie, although he never actually says what's wrong with lying. Still, I commend Smith for not accepting the behavior.

Yet, some do. Damon Martin of UFC-credentialed MMA Weekly flatly argues that lying, while regrettable, was in the UFC's best interest. I have a ton of respect for Damon and the work of everyone at MMA Weekly, and I suspect in the wake of Sherdog.com losing their credentials, he's trying to protect the site's interests. But if you're going to justify being lied to - an act that attempts to undermine the effort to report facts - then you deserve to be lied to.

Also, there is no separation between media and fans here. White and Ortiz didn't simply lie to the media, somehow sparing UFC fans. Talking to the media is a means to reach MMA fans and other interested parties. You cannot lie to them in a vacuum. Lying to them is lying to the world. There's also the fact that White lied on his Twitter feed, which presumably is followed by hundreds of thousands of UFC fans. He circumvented the media to directly give UFC fans a narrative he explicitly knew to be false.

Let's answer the question, then: what is the problem with lying to the media or fans?

Aside from the obvious, the answer is that it severely undermines and erodes the foundation of honesty that guides the relationship between media and organization. The media has a responsibility to honestly and forthrightly publish only true information when reporting; the organization has a responsibility to only release information they know to be true. The UFC is free to withhold whatever information they choose, but knowingly telling falsehoods to select members of the media that seek to undermine other conflicting reports within the media is using the media to cannibalize itself.

It also compromises those who lied as dubious sources of information. Dan Steinberg of the Washington Post spoke about this matter before. White is all too happy to field media requests even though his proximity to the issues often makes his position as a helpful source both limited and questionable. White has become both promoter and de facto PR arm of the UFC, and the media appears all too eager to source him ad infinitum despite basic conflicts of interest.

I sincerely doubt White or Ortiz are happy about misrepresenting what happened to either the media or fans. I do not believe it's a decision they are necessarily proud of or hope to repeat. But apprehension doesn't absolve them from blame if they go through with it. And if they go through with it in the face of clear, ethical alternatives, it makes sympathy for their position impossible to come by. 

UPDATE: Dana White answered questions today from Jim Rome about this very issue:

Rome also asked White about a couple of other issues, including lying about the upcoming Chuck Liddell-Rich Franklin fight.

"The people who feel like they've been lied to? Too bad," White said. "Get over it. It's a reality show, and oh, well."

Translation: "If you feel like you've been lied to, you have, but we don't care." And people in the media are defending this?

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