In what he believed to be an “off-the-record” discussion during a dinner attended by New York City’s influential elite, a senior executive at Uber suggested the company “dig up dirt” and spread details of the personal life of a female journalist who criticized the transportation company.
That journalist, PandoDaily’s Sarah Lacy, has been vocal about Uber’s “sexism and misogyny” in recent months, even deleting the app herself after Buzzfeed reported that Uber was working with a French escort service.
The executive, Emil Michael, has since released a statement regarding his suggestion to use smear campaigns against Uber’s critics, telling the media he “regrets” his comments.
Michael, who has been at Uber for more than a year as its senior vice president of business, floated the idea at a dinner Friday at Manhattan’s Waverly Inn attended by an influential New York crowd including actor Ed Norton and publisher Arianna Huffington. The dinner was hosted by Ian Osborne, a former adviser to British Prime Minister David Cameron and consultant to the company.
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.
Michael was particularly focused on one journalist, Sarah Lacy, the editor of the Silicon Valley website PandoDaily, a sometimes combative voice inside the industry.
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.
Interestingly enough, Michael’s “off-the-record” and obviously misogynistic, victim-blaming, and potentially dangerous attack against Lacy and other journalists who speak out against Uber is exactly the reason Lacy has remained vocal about the companies intentions.
And the criticism is worth a review.
This is what Lacy had to say in a recent article titled “The Moment I Learned Just How Far Uber Will Go To Silence Journalist and Attack Women:”
“…in 2014, Carmel DeAmicis exposed that an Uber driver accused of assault had a criminal record that should have been uncovered by the background checks Uber claimed to do. She further documented a “blame the passenger” culture at the company when such complaints came up.
It started to snowball: An investigation at The Verge exposed cut throat competitive tactics that the company has taken against its primary competitor Lyft.
Then, a few weeks ago, I wrote a story about the outrageous sexism woven deeply into the culture of the company. We’ve seen it in the company’s PR team discrediting female passengers who accuse drivers of attacking them by whispering that they were “drunk” or “dressed provocatively.”
We’ve seen it in CEO Travis Kalanick’s comments that he calls the company “boober” because of all the tail he gets since running it.
And on October 22, we saw it again with an offensive campaign in Lyon that encouraged riders to get picked up by hot female drivers, essentially a scary invitation to objectify (or worse) any woman working for the company. That ad was taken down once exposed by Buzzfeed, but sources tell us no one was fired for taking that kind of “initiative.” We also heard that Kalanick’s misogyny is such a problem that recently hired political operative David Plouffe had made it a priority to work on the CEO’s behavior. As if that kind of misogyny– and encouragement of it in a corporate culture– is something that careful media training can repair rather than simply disguise.”
Regarding the campaign, Michael and an Uber spokesperson released this statement ensuring that tactics like the one Michael suggested would and could not be used on journalists:
“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 the company does not do “oppo research” of any sort on journalists, and has never considered doing it. She also said Uber does not consider Lacy’s personal life fair game, or believe that she is responsible for women being sexually assaulted.
Hourdajian also said that Uber has clear policies against executives looking at journalists’ travel logs, a rich source of personal information in Uber’s possession.
Michael changed tune sounds questionable when paired with what Buzzfeed said was his response when an individual at the swanky NYC dinner party (also attended by a Buzzfeed journalist) suggested the Uber plan could be problematic.