Uber's competitors, regulators, and drivers can take a breath. The company, which believes it is worth $25 billion, has a new nemesis: reporters who don't follow the puff piece protocol. A top Uber executive suggested hiring opposition researchers "specifically to spread details of the personal life of a female journalist who has criticized the company," reports Buzzfeed.
This vindictive response to aggressive reporting about one of the most high-profile companies in the tech industry was uttered by Emil Michael, Uber's senior vice president of business. Michael previously held a top role at Klout and recently joined a board that advises the Department of Defense.
The remarks were made at a chichi gathering at Waverly Inn, the exclusive Manhattan clubhouse, which was attended by Uber CEO Travis Kalanick, Ed Norton, Arianna Huffingon, and "a Buzzfeed editor." The evening's host was Ian Osborne, an Uber consultant who used to advise Prime Minister David Cameron.
Over dinner, [Michael] outlined the notion of spending "a million dollars" to hire four top opposition researchers and four journalists. That team could, he said, help Uber fight back against the press — they'd look into "your personal lives, your families," and give the media a taste of its own medicine.
According to Buzzfeed, Michael's plan of attack was focused on Sarah Lacy, the founder of PandoDaily, based on this blog post. Lacy is known in equal measures for cozying up to and rallying against Silicon Valley insiders, some of whom finance her blog.
Lacy recently accused Uber of "sexism and misogyny." She wrote that she was deleting her Uber app after BuzzFeed News reported that Uber appeared to be working with a French escort service. "I don't know how many more signals we need that the company simply doesn't respect us or prioritize our safety," she wrote.
At the dinner, Michael expressed outrage at Lacy's column and said that women are far more likely to get assaulted by taxi drivers than Uber drivers. He said that he thought Lacy should be held "personally responsible" for any woman who followed her lead in deleting Uber and was then sexually assaulted.
Then he returned to the opposition research plan. Uber's dirt-diggers, Michael said, could expose Lacy. They could, in particular, prove a particular and very specific claim about her personal life.
Buzzfeed does not specify which detail of Lacy's personal life they planned on revealing. But aside from throwing around the term "oppo research," this strategy sounds like the machinations of a rank-and-file Gamergate troll, not a global company that has raised $1.5 billion in venture capital.
Michael thought the dinner was off-the-record, a fact that was not communicated to Buzzfeed. He later recanted through an Uber spokeswoman:
"The remarks attributed to me at a private dinner — borne out of frustration during an informal debate over what I feel is sensationalistic media coverage of the company I am proud to work for — do not reflect my actual views and have no relation to the company's views or approach. They were wrong no matter the circumstance and I regret them."
The spokeswoman, Nairi Hourdajian, said this kind of behavior would violate Uber's privacy policies, but Buzzfeed reports that the company has broken its own rules in a separate interaction with another female reporter. Buzzfeed said the line was crossed by Josh Mohrer, the general manager of Uber NYC, who has repeatedly engaged in unprofessional behavior.
In fact, the general manager of Uber NYC accessed the profile of a BuzzFeed News reporter, Johana Bhuiyan, to make points in the course of a discussion of Uber policies. At no point in the email exchanges did she give him permission to do so.
In this case, it actually is about ethics in tech industry journalism and Uber is on the wrong side.
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[Image via Getty]