Coverage: Uber investigates journalists?
On Tuesday morning, many woke up to the news that a senior vice president at Uber bragged at a dinner about spending $1 million to investigate journalists whose coverage the company didn’t like.
BuzzFeed News broke the original story and had this follow-up later in the day by Charlie Warzel:
This afternoon on Twitter, Uber CEO Travis Kalanick condemned comments made by Senior Vice President Emil Michael suggesting that the ride-sharing giant should consider hiring opposition researchers to dig up dirt on journalists who’ve previously criticized the company.
Michael’s comments, first reported by BuzzFeed News, included the prospect of looking into details of the personal lives of specific journalists without their knowledge. While Michael issued a public statement calling his remarks “wrong no matter the circumstance,” Uber’s outspoken CEO has been silent. Until now.
In an 13-tweet Twitterstorm, Kalanick decried Michael’s remarks, saying that they showed “a lack of humanity.” While there was no official apology, Kalanick suggested that Uber should “tell the stories of progress and appeal to people’s hearts and minds,” noting that the company will focus on regaining user trust.
“I will do everything in my power toward the goal of earning that trust,” he tweeted.
Mike Isaac wrote for The New York Times that Uber has been trying to remake its image in the press after being accused of being aggressive toward those who don’t agree with it:
The incident put a renewed focus on Uber’s confrontational attitude toward the press, a reputation that has grown in the last few years. The company’s fast growth — it is now valued at more than $17 billion — has attracted aggressive coverage in the tech press and often equally aggressive responses from the company.
In recent months, though, the company has tried to repair its tarnished image by courting national media outlets. Those efforts could be derailed by Mr. Michael’s comments.
The comments, BuzzFeed said, came during a private dinner in New York last week. Mr. Michael’s comments, BuzzFeed said, focused on one journalist in particular, Sarah Lacy, who runs the technology site Pando. Ms. Lacy has been an outspoken critic of Uber and of Travis Kalanick, the company’s chief executive.
Shortly after the article appeared, Mr. Michael backed away from the comments.
Sarah Lacy, the named journalist at the heart of the comments, posted her response on PandoDaily:
I first heard of this when Smith called me for comment over the weekend. I was out late at a work dinner in London and stepped out into the cold to take the call. A chill ran down my spine that had little to do with the weather, as he described the bizarre interaction. I immediately thought of my kids at home halfway around the world, just getting out of their baths and groggily pulling on their pajamas, and how the new line that this company was willing to cross would affect them.
We are used to intimidation here. We’ve had sources try to intimidate Pando into silence by withholding access, threatening $300 million lawsuits, spreading lies about our relationships with our backers– or even suggesting that we’re funded by the CIA. We have mobs unleashed on us on Twitter, seemingly weekly.
So my concern wasn’t more lies winding up online about me. Sadly, I’ve had to get used to it. My concern was that the nature of these lies weren’t the same trumped up bullshit about Pando being influenced by its investors. That smear hasn’t worked, and we share several investors with Uber, so that dog doesn’t exactly hunt.
Tim Bradshaw of The Financial Times notes that Michael isn’t likely to lose his job over the comments despite how rattled Lacy was over them:
However, Mr Kalanick indicated that Mr Michael would not lose his job over the incident. “I believe that folks who make mistakes can learn from them – myself included,” he said. “And that also goes for Emil.”
Mr Michael’s suggestion of smearing reporters was largely directed at Sarah Lacy, founder and editor-in-chief of tech news site Pando, according to BuzzFeed. Ms Lacy, who has been a prominent critic of Uber and its executives, called his remarks “horrifying”.
Uber is no stranger to controversy, thanks to its regular tussles with regulators and taxi unions, and recent criticism of its tactics for poaching drivers from its main US rival Lyft.
This summer, Mr Kalanick hired David Plouffe, former presidential campaign manager for President Barack Obama, to help him fight what he has styled as a political battle against the taxi industry.
So despite reports of an aggressive and male dominated corporate culture, Uber is choosing (for now) to stand by the person making these comments. It’s a bit shocking. No matter how high-powered the lobbying, if consumers start deleting your app off their phone, you’re going to be in trouble. While journalists throughout history are no strangers to intimidation, this is being played out in the public eye via Twitter, and extensive media coverage gives it a new twist.