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Shill ‘Em All, Part 5: Good Night and Good Luck


(Sixty years ago, we had Edward R. Murrow and Fred Friendly. Now, we’ve got these guys.)

To read previous installments of the award-winning “Shill ‘Em All” series, look here: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4

By Brian J. D’Souza

The class action lawsuit filed against the UFC by Cung Le, Nate Quarry and Jon Fitch has dramatically polarized the MMA sphere. Instead of debating the merits of the case, many are debating whether the lawsuit has a right to exist.

Chael Sonnen has characterized the lawsuit as a “shakedown”; others say that the plaintiffs are just bitter ex-fighters who have an axe to grind. It’s bizarre that so many are acting as if these events suddenly crept up quietly to ambush the UFC—and it’s also a symptom of the poor job done by the MMA media in reporting business concepts in a way fans can understand them.

A “USEFUL IDIOT”

Last month, Chael Sonnen sounded off on Ariel Helwani on his podcast, saying “You’re not a journalist, you’re a parrot.” The message wasn’t coming from a warm, fuzzy place inside Sonnen’s heart—the Oregonian wrestler was irate at Helwani’s handling of the steroid scandal Sonnen had been embroiled in, which lead to Sonnen’s exit from MMA competition.

FrontRowBrian—a Twitter personality who has the ability to scoop news stories and rumors that the mainstream media either doesn’t know about or is too scared to touch—added his own insight into the Helwani-UFC relationship, which hit a snag when Helwani was reported to be on the outs at UFC partner FoxSports in January 2014.

With his typically cheerful ginger candor, FrontRowBrian tweeted (then later, deleted) that Helwani was a “useful idiot,” and said that the UFC had temporarily fired him because they “just wanted to show him who is the boss and how they can end a career.”

Ariel Helwani is an extreme case of someone with overt dependence on the UFC. Like many media members, he knows what the key issues are between MMA promoters and the fighters, but he makes a conscious effort to restrain himself from fully developing very specific ideas in his reporting.

For example, when Nate Diaz’s complaints about pay made headlines in April, Helwani wrote a very detailed article for MMAFighting.com outlining Diaz’s points, as well as a succinct reply from Dana White. Carefully omitted from the article is any analysis of the revenue Nate Diaz generates for the UFC versus what he’s paid.

Then again, as Yahoo! reporter Kevin Iole carefully explained in a February column on the subject of whether fighter pay is fair, “No one can say with certainty because we don’t really know what [fighters] earn or how much the UFC makes.”

It’s a terrific alibi for adhering to the status quo that MMA journalists can cling to the way Ariel Helwani can cling to his four consecutive “MMA Journalist of the Year” awards (2010, 2011, 2012, 2013) as evidence that he’s a journalist.

JOURNALISTS IN GLASS HOUSES

The “Shill of the Year” award clearly goes to Kenny Rice, host of AXS TV show Inside MMA, for abruptly cutting short an interview with undefeated welterweight Ben Askren back in September.

“The UFC has had quite the monopoly the last handful of years, but really, if they don’t change their tune, they’re gonna start losing some fans,” opined Askren in response to a statement (question?) by Kenny Rice about the UFC housing the world’s best fighters.

Rice quickly halted the interview midstream, but his methods caused more damage than if he’d simply allowed Askren to finish. Fans everywhere were outraged over the incident and sounded off all over Twitter, discussion forums and comments sections.

“Honestly, I think a lot of people were kind of happy that someone was finally speaking the truth,” Askren later told MMAJunkie Radio, “all of a sudden I get cut off and I get censored – they’re really mad about that.”

When AXS TV producer Andrew Simon offered an apology, Askren requested that he be able to return to the show to debate the topic of MMA economics with Kenny Rice. No debate ever materialized, but as a consolation, Rice’s Inside MMA co-host Bas Rutten posted a 1,200-word Facebook rant full of disjointed, tangential thoughts that absolved Rice from responsibility (at least from his viewpoint).

In completely unrelated news, Robert Joyner of MMAPayout.com reported that AXS TV chairman, CEO and president Mark Cuban became a UFC bondholder in 2009.

DOLLAR$ AND $EN$E

In 2005, George Clooney directed Good Night, and Good Luck., a film about CBS reporter Edward R. Murrow challenging anti-communist fear monger Senator Joseph McCarthy through accurate—and courageous—reporting.

Murrow makes a speech in the movie that cuts right to the heart of today’s media culture of self-interested info-tainment: “Unless we get up off our fat surpluses and recognize that television in the main is being used to distract, delude, amuse, and insulate us, then television and those who finance it, those who look at it, and those who work at it, may see a totally different picture too late.”

When Murrow and producer Fred Friendly attempt to cover a news story that evidences the arbitrary nature of the communist witch-hunt, key sponsors back out. Upper-management at CBS allows the controversial story to run, but in the end, the powers that be have their own ironclad rhetoric for paring down Murrow’s influence.

Sixty Four Thousand Dollar Question brings in over $80,000 in sponsors and it costs a third of what you do,” chief executive of CBS William Paley tells Murrow and Friendly.


(George Clooney in Good Night, and Good Luck.)

So what incentive is there for an MMA website to fund an investigative reporter like John S. Nash to write a detailed analysis of MMA contracts when they can get more bang for their buck commissioning a series of stories about the usual “he said/she said” clickbait floating around the blogosphere?

Not to mention the clear links between MMA promotions’ advertising dollars and certain news outlets, like the UFC’s relationship with USA Today/MMAJunkie, as reported on in Shill ‘Em All, Part 4. I was directed to senior vice president of USA Today Leagues and Properties Merrill Squires to answer questions about the “USA Today UFC Group.” Although I contacted him for comment 11 months ago, I am sure that it will only be a matter of time before he gets back to me.

Meanwhile, MMAJunkie.com has provided excellent analysis of the UFC lawsuit including a story about perennial opportunist Tito Ortiz declining to participate in the suit, as well as a must-read piece on Travis Browne’s manager John Fosco calling the plaintiffs “a bunch of wimps.”

Are these stories relevant to the nature of the lawsuit, or are they just disinformation being pumped out to influence public opinion? Perhaps Fosco’s side-gig as a marketing rep for several UFC-approved sponsors deftly answers that question.

SHADOWS OF OURSELVES

The reality of the UFC lawsuit is that it is being led by a group of fighters who are removed from their primes. They didn’t have the mechanisms, information, organization or leadership to stand up for themselves at the apex of their careers when it would have had the most impact. There’s also the reality of getting sucked into the game of corporate politics—sacrificing dignity and rights today for the promise of a paycheck and advancement tomorrow.

MMA journalists are in a similar juxtaposition with respect to their careers—there are incentives to toe the party line. But every time a reporter bends to the promoter’s whims, they endear less respect and credibility. Eventually, no matter how compliant or obedient a reporter is, they can find themselves unemployed and forgotten.

In the last year, many prominent names in the industry—among them Mike Chiappetta, Joe Ferraro, Mike Straka and Jim Casey—have moved on from full-time jobs covering the sport. Many part-time writers are also seeing their budgets slashed, and thus being further marginalized or rendered irrelevant.

One well-known former MMA media member penned (and recently deleted) a poem with this sad verse:

I didn’t know I would end up here,
No family, no money, no career.
Two girls who look up to me,
And a shadow of who I used to be.

All I can say to the survivors still committed to working in the media is that you need to carefully consider your objectives and the impact of your work. How do you want to be remembered? Will you be remembered?

The clock is ticking. What you produce will be your only answer.

***

Brian J. D’Souza is the author of the critically acclaimed book Pound for Pound: The Modern Gladiators of Mixed Martial Arts. You can check out an excerpt right here.

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