An Uber executive suggested a plan for discrediting critical journalists, according to a report from Buzzfeed News. The tidbit was rather unwisely shared at a gathering organized by journalist Michael Wolff. Emil Michael, the senior VP of business, told a table of New York’s elite that Uber wanted to hire a team of investigators to dig up dirt on reporters.
Buzzfeed described it as a revenge plan of sorts, saying “They’d look into ‘your personal lives, your families,’ and give the media a taste of its own medicine.” Michael proposed spending a million dollars on such a program, hiring four researchers and four journalists to conduct the digging.
Specifically, Michael wanted to go after Pandodaily’s Sarah Lacy, who had recently written an article about deleting the Uber app from her phone because of the company’s recent sexist responses. From Buzzfeed’s explanation:
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.
The news is horrifying. Even if Michael was just joking, it’s a joke with serious teeth.
Uber has extensive data on its customers, from their credit card numbers to real-time locations. With the power of that information, it would have an easy upper hand at tracking reporters — and almost anyone using its service, really — and unveiling details of their personal lives. The idea of them attacking journalists in a Machiavellian political scheme is downright creepy. It also says a lot about the company’s ethical issues and take-no-prisoner approach to business.
After publishing this story initially, an Uber spokesperson contacted me and said, “We have not, do not and will not investigate journalists. Those remarks have no basis in the reality of our approach.”
As a reporter who has done a lot of critical reporting on Uber, including one of the earliest investigations into its background check practices (Sarah Lacy was my editor on that story), I’m shaken. I’ve deleted the Uber app from my phone.
Although I may have to reinstall it in the future to report on product developments since ridesharing is part of my beat, Uber won’t be receiving any of my personal business anymore.
After this story ran, Michael released the following statement:
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.
This story has been updated with Uber and Wolff’s comment.