Of all the things to say while talking to a journalist: A high-profile executive at Uber told BuzzFeed's editor-in-chief about his idea to hire a team to dig up dirt on the lives of journalists who are critical of Uber, "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." And their number one target was Pando Daily's Sarah Lacy.
BuzzFeed's EIC Ben Smith attended "a dinner Friday at Manhattan’s Waverly Inn attended by an influential New York crowd including actor Ed Norton and publisher Arianna Huffington" that was apparently part of the Uber's "charm offensive" to win over the press. Smith was chatting with Uber senior vice president of business Emil Michael. From Smith's account:
Over dinner, he 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.Lacy wrote her own account of finding out about Michael's proposed plan:
Michael was particularly focused on one journalist, Sarah Lacy, the editor of the Silicon Valley website PandoDaily, a sometimes combative voice inside the industry. 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.
Michael at no point suggested that Uber has actually hired opposition researchers, or that it plans to. He cast it as something that would make sense, that the company would be justified in doing.
Ruining her life? Manufacturing lies? Going after her family? Apparently it’s all part of what Uber has described as its “political campaign” to build a $30 billion (and counting) tech company. A campaign that David Plouffe was hired to “run,” that’s looking more like a pathetic version of play acting House of Cards than a real campaign run by a real political professional. Because step one of an illegal smear campaign against a woman is: Don’t brag about it to a journalist at a party.She also lamented the casual misogyny of the company, "I have known many of Uber’s key investors and founders personally for six to ten years. Over that time I’ve seen an ever-worsening frat culture where sexist jokes and a blind eye here-or-there have developed into a company where the worst kind of smearing and objectification of women is A-ok."
The woman in question? The woman that this Uber executive has vowed to go to nearly any lengths to ruin, to bully into silence? Me.
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.
Michael apologized on Twitter to Lacy:
@sarahcuda I would like to apologize to you directly. My comments were wrong and I deeply regret them.— Emil Michael (@emilmichael) November 18, 2014
@sarahcuda Neither me nor my company would ever engage in such activities. Again, I apologize.— Emil Michael (@emilmichael) November 18, 2014
And he tried to speak to her on the phone; Lacy wrote, "Emil Michael called my cell phone shortly after I published this and asked to talk off the record. I’m not entirely sure how he got my phone number as I’ve never met or previously spoken with him. I told Michael that I would not talk to him off the record. This is an issue of vital importance to our readers, Uber’s riders, journalists and women in the Valley, and I will not have a conversation I can’t share with them. He said goodbye and hung up."
just got a call from @emilmichael asking if we could chat off record. i said no. readers and riders deserved to hear it. so he hung up— Sarah Lacy (@sarahcuda) November 18, 2014
you threaten my family @emilmichael and you want to chat off record? um, no.— Sarah Lacy (@sarahcuda) November 18, 2014
i will not be complicit in @emilmichael or @uber's cowardly threatening and off the record games— Sarah Lacy (@sarahcuda) November 18, 2014
Michael later emailed her, "I wanted to apologize to you directly — I am sorry. I was at an event and was venting, but what I said was never intended to describe actions that would ever be undertaken by me or my company toward you or anyone else. I was definitively wrong and I feel terrible about any distress I have caused you. Again, I am sorry."
Uber insisted that it does not do opposition research. While Uber told Buzzfeed that it "has clear policies against executives looking at journalists’ travel logs, a rich source of personal information in Uber’s posession," Smith wrote, "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."