As 2020 came to a close, UFC president Dana White released an incendiary video targeting journalists who criticized his decision to hold fights during the early stages of the coronavirus pandemic.
The video, which has since been mysteriously removed by the UFC, was little more than a propaganda showpiece – a montage of journalists’ faces with “WRONG” emblazoned over them, out-of-context headlines and quotes, as well as snippets of White saying things like “I don’t give a fuck” while orchestral music played in the background. Instead of celebrating the promotion’s profitable year, White instead published an attack video for the sole purpose of discrediting journalists and making them the target of hate and ridicule.
“I’m not afraid of the media,” White said during the video. “Why should anybody listen to the media? Who are these people? What makes them experts? What have they ever accomplished?”
I was one of the journalists mentioned in the video for an article I wrote for the Guardian in March titled “The UFC’s defiance of the coronavirus outbreak is reckless and irresponsible.” The article was written in the same week that saw more than 100 countries institute a full or partial lockdown in an attempt to mitigate the spread of the virus. Yet while sports leagues such as MLS, NHL, and the NBA suspended their respective seasons, the UFC went ahead with an event in Brazil, where fighters were not tested for Covid-19.
While the UFC’s decision to include my article in the anti-media video was disingenuous and a misrepresentation of my reporting, it came as little surprise from an organization that has long maintained an antagonistic relationship with the media.
In 2009, White uploaded a now-infamous video in which he called MMA reporter (and Guardian contributor) Loretta Hunt a “fucking dumb bitch” and her sources “faggots” in response to an article on the UFC’s attempts to sidestep managers and agents when dealing with fighters. White was eventually forced to apologize to the LGBTQ+ community for using homophobic slurs in his rant, though he never apologized to Hunt. Instead, she remains banned from covering UFC events in person.
The UFC has long used access as a tool to maintain control over reporters. By threatening to withdraw press credentials, the promotion is able to leverage favourable reporting that serves as an extension of its public relations output. When journalists step outside the bounds of what the UFC considers acceptable reporting, they are bullied into submission or banished from the UFC media circus altogether. To date, there are a number of reporters who remain blacklisted by the promotion, including Hunt, Sherdog editor (and Guardian contributor) Josh Gross, Bleacher Report’s Jonathan Snowden, the entire staff of the Bloody Elbow (where I also work) and myself. At one point, the list also included ESPN reporter Ariel Helwani, who was banned from receiving press credentials after he reported on two big fights without contacting the promotion beforehand.
While the UFC eventually buckled under pressure from media and fans to restore Helwani’s press access, the ESPN reporter recently found himself in the centre of controversy after White referred to him as a “douche” for no reason other than to humiliate the reporter.
Last week, the UFC president was asked about Gina Carano, the former MMA fighter-turned-actress who was fired from Disney’s hit series The Mandalorian for a string of abhorrent social media posts ranging from blatant anti-Semitism to spreading disinformation and dangerous conspiracy theories, including the far-right QAnon. Carano’s most recent controversial post – and likely the straw that broke the camel’s back – compared Republican voters to Jews in Nazi Germany.
Not only did White come to Carano’s defence, telling reporters at the UFC 258 scrum to “leave her alone” and that “we all make mistakes,” he did so while attacking Helwani, who was not even in attendance, for simply voicing his opinion on social media.
“I love how Ariel Helwani made it all about him,” White said. “Such a douche.”
The decision to call Helwani – a Jewish reporter – self-centered for attempting to share his perspective on Carano’s anti-Semitic comments perfectly encapsulates White’s disdain for the media. A disdain so great that the UFC president is willing to ensnare his company in unnecessary controversy simply for a chance to attack a journalist.
White’s comments drew ire from the likes of former ESPN host Dan Le Batard, who referred to White as a “bully” for targeting Helwani. It also raised concerns about the UFC’s relationship with ESPN, which is a UFC rights broadcast partner. After three days of silence, despite one of its reporters being verbally abused by the president of a sports organization it is partnered with, ESPN finally released a tepid statement saying that “Ariel is a valued colleague and an exceptional MMA reporter. His record speaks for itself.”
White’s constant conflict with the media is reminiscent of Donald Trump, a friend of White who sowed distrust in media as part of his political strategy while calling reporters the “enemy of the people”. So it comes as little surprise that White, who campaigned for Trump in 2016 and 2020, is mimicking the former president while coming to the aid of fellow conservative Carano.
The UFC’s strong-arm approach to public relations, which includes White’s abusive outbursts at media members, is part of the promotion’s strategy to control journalists, and by extension, the narratives surrounding a particular event. Due to the constant fear of having their press credentials rescinded, beat reporters in attendance are discouraged from asking difficult questions that would reflect poorly on the UFC. These include topics such as unionization, fighter pay, the ongoing class-action lawsuit against the UFC, or the UFC’s affiliation with several authoritarian regimes around the world.
There are countless other examples of the UFC’s exploitative approach to handling the media.
On at least one occasion during the Covid-19 pandemic, the promotion attempted to silence journalists by making them sign a waiver that greatly limited their ability to report critically on the UFC’s health and safety measures. It all but guaranteed that the UFC would not be held accountable for any missteps on its part.
Yet beyond the UFC’s systematic erosion of press freedoms, the promotion also relies on White to manipulate journalists with his unique blend of gaslighting and belligerent rants. And when all else fails, White resorts to his favorite tactic: blame the media for stirring up controversy.