mma

UFC: Your unofficial guide to survival as a reporter

Dana White can make things very difficult for those who cross him in any way. Rival promotions are left in the dust. Fighters are cut. And reporters, even entire news organizations, can be tossed into the cold.

The funny thing is that I still like him on a personal level, and I respect what he and the Fertitta brothers did to build MMA from a sideshow to a main event. Had the UFC folded circa 2004 when the brothers were losing a ton of money, I doubt MMA would ever have risen to anything resembling the prominence it has today. The Friends episode in which Monica’s boyfriend is beaten up might have been the peak of the sport.

I don’t blame him for playing hardball with other promotions. Most of the cuts from the UFC’s oversized roster are justifiable, and they let a fighter go off and headline a smaller show instead of taking more lumps in the Octagon.

The attitude toward reporters, though, is an issue. I’ve told Dana before that I don’t think it’s fair to keep out Loretta Hunt, Josh Gross and others who have fallen afoul of the UFC’s good graces.

So today, Deadspin got a tip — a note from Bleacher Report/Houston Chronicle MMA writer Jeremy Botter to other writers, explaining What Not To Do To Piss Off Dana.

(Disclaimer time: I’ve written for Bleacher Report. Most of you know that already. Yes, I was paid. Moving on.)

The fact that it was at Deadspin should set off some alarm bells. Writer Tim Marchman seems to be casting himself as the MMA-community equivalent of the guy who says, “Fine, I don’t want to go to your stupid party, anyway.” He notes with pride that Deadspin itself is blacklisted from the UFC. But … it’s Deadspin. Deadspin has always taken the stance that it doesn’t WANT credentials because its brilliant bloggers might meet actual athletes and come to consider them as human beings rather than fodder for their snark cannons.

But the funny thing is that Botter’s note — not really a memo — is mostly spot-on.

The exception is the mention of Loretta Hunt. She wasn’t actually banned for her reporting on UFC backstage access. At the time of the backstage access story, she was working for Sherdog, which was already banned. And her previous employer fell out with the UFC, too. The details in each case are rather arcane.

(Yes, I know the “official version” UFC drones post to impress basement-dwellers on the UG is vastly different, but that just shows how effective the unofficial UFC spin machine can be. One of the UFC drones on the UG is female, and I think a lot of people in that community are just excited to be speaking to a girl.)

In any case, Sam Caplan backed up Hunt’s story. And to this day, I think it’s a story that would’ve been forgotten if Dana hadn’t responded on video in a way that forced him to reconsider his language. The fact that Dana responded so harshly makes me think Hunt was on to something. Why else would he care?

In any case, it’s worth remembering here that Botter never intended for this to be public. If he was writing this for publication, he’d be a little more careful with the research.

With that out of the way, let’s look at just how accurate this note really is:

1. Nothing pisses Dana off more than people talking about Zuffa’s financials and getting everything wrong.

True of nearly everyone in the news. The UFC (Zuffa) is stingy with details, sure. But reporters can’t try to fill in gaps in their knowledge with flimsy information.

2. Don’t “report” things unless you have two very credible sources.

Basic journalism there.

3. Don’t be a mouthpiece for a manager who may be feeding you false information.

Hunt was used as the example here, and that’s inaccurate. But the point is correct.

4. Don’t be a mouthpiece for a fighter who may be feeding you false information.

Frankly, if Bleacher Report lives up to this, they’ll be ethically ahead of a lot of major news orgs.

5. Don’t talk about Dana’s history with his mom.

I didn’t know about this, but it never occurred to me to ask. Not sure how it’s anyone’s business unless his mom starts a rival fight promotion.

6. Don’t mix rumors with opinion.

Funny — people loved it when William Safire did it. But again, it’s good basic journalism here. You’re entitled to your opinion. Dana may tease you about it, but I don’t think he has banned anyone simply for an opinion. He doesn’t like inaccurate reporting about it. (The problem comes when the reporting is accurate, and he insists it’s not.)

7. Don’t be negative just to be edgy.

Well, no wonder Deadspin thought this was amusing. That’s their entire business model.

7a. Wait until the media scrum after an official press conference to bring up controversial topics.

People in the news often have their idiosyncrasies, and this is one. I don’t think a reporter is bending to Dana’s will by waiting for the media scrum to ask about fighter pay or something like that. If you know you’re going to get a better answer then, why not wait to ask it until then? Reporters want answers, not pointless confrontations.

8. You’re being watched. They pay attention to all media reports.

They most certainly do. Some in the sports world say they don’t read the papers or pay attention to the news. Dana doesn’t say that. He knows people would just laugh. The UFC is image-conscious to a fault.

So there’s really nothing controversial (other than the Hunt comment) in this note. I could write something similar about nearly everyone I’ve covered.

The larger issue is the UFC’s insistence on vindictive bans against Hunt, Gross, Sherdog (off and on), etc. It actually puts those of us who are “in” the UFC media circle in a tough spot. We seem compromised. I see people accuse credentialed reporters of being UFC mouthpieces all the time, and it’s usually unfair.

In that context, it probably doesn’t help that Botter’s note went public. People with an unflattering view of the UFC’s media relations may see it as a guide to genuflection toward Dana White and company. But it’s nothing more than a reasonable piece of advice for dealing with an oft-unreasonable community.

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