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Uber exec wanted to 'dig up dirt' on journalists

The popular ride-sharing service has a controversy on its hands after a senior executive said he wanted to investigate reporters critical of the company.

Richard Nieva Former senior reporter
Richard Nieva was a senior reporter for CNET News, focusing on Google and Yahoo. He previously worked for PandoDaily and Fortune Magazine, and his writing has appeared in The New York Times, on CNNMoney.com and on CJR.org.
Dara Kerr Former senior reporter
Dara Kerr was a senior reporter for CNET covering the on-demand economy and tech culture. She grew up in Colorado, went to school in New York City and can never remember how to pronounce gif.
Richard Nieva
Dara Kerr
4 min read

After Uber's senior vice president of business, Emil Michael, said reporters critical of the company should be investigated, CEO Travis Kalanick (shown here) renounced Michael's remarks but seemed to forgive them, saying people can learn from their mistakes. Stephen Shankland/CNET

Uber, the popular ride-hailing service, has been open about its fight against the taxi industry, as well as against high-profile rivals like Lyft. Now one senior executive has considered adding another group to that list: journalists.

Emil Michael, the company's senior vice president of business, said at a dinner in New York last week that the company should consider hiring a team of researchers to "dig up dirt on its critics in the media," according to a BuzzFeed report.

Michael said the company could spend a million dollars to hire four top "oppositional researchers" and four journalists to delve into the personal lives of journalists and their families. Uber CEO Travis Kalanick was also present at the dinner -- along with VIPs from both the entertainment and media industries.

Michael's comments were a reaction to what he feels was "sensational media coverage" of Uber, he said in a statement. Still, his boss disagreed with his remarks.

"[Michael's] remarks showed a lack of leadership, a lack of humanity and a departure from our values and ideals," Kalanick said in a tweet. Kalanick also all but said Michael would not be fired for his remarks. "I believe that folks who make mistakes can learn from them -- myself included," he said. "And that also goes for Emil."

The proposed effort to undermine criticism of the company by attacking journalists is just the latest in what has become a series of black eyes for the high-flying startup. The San Francisco-based ride-sharing company, which is valued at almost $20 billion, has been accused of dirty dealings against competitors and even its own drivers.

In August, Uber was accused of booking and canceling rides from competitors like Lyft, as well as attempting to recruit its drivers. The company has also drawn criticism for its practice of surge-pricing -- or raising fares when rides are most in demand -- during events like snowstorms.

In an article in the latest issue of Vanity Fair, Kalanick claimed to be softening his and the company's image. But Michael's comments undermine that assertion.

The idea to go after the personal lives of journalists is not new. Over the past several months, a group of people on Twitter, Reddit and other social-media sites have been attacking some journalists who cover the video game industry.

The effort, known as #GamerGate, began in reaction to allegations that a journalist had an inappropriate relationship with a video game developer, but it has since spiraled into a debate about feminism and the role of the media in critiquing the industry it covers.

Other companies have also targeted journalists in the past. For example, a former private investigator was sentenced to jail in 2012 for his involvement in a scandal where Hewlett-Packard spied on reporters to find out where leaks were coming from.

Going after Sarah Lacy
At the dinner, Michael specifically mentioned journalist Sarah Lacy, editor of the technology website PandoDaily, which he said has been particularly critical of Uber. (Marc Andreessen is a personal investor of PandoDaily, his firm Andreessen Horowitz is an investor of Uber's chief rival, Lyft).

Lacy wrote a column accusing Uber of "sexism and misogyny" in October, after a company promotion in France that promised to pair riders with "hot chick" drivers. In the column, she announced she was deleting the Uber app from her phone.

Following BuzzFeed's report on Monday, Lacy penned a lengthy article on PandoDaily alleging Michael's comments fit in with Uber's "misogynist" corporate culture.

"Uber's dangerous escalation of behavior has just had its whistleblower moment, and tellingly, the whistleblower wasn't a staffer with a conscience, it was an executive boasting about the proposed plan," Lacy wrote. "It's gone so far, that there are those in the company who don't even realize this is something you try to cover up."

Lacy has since questioned why Uber hasn't fired Michael in light of his comments.

"They've known about this since at least Saturday; why hasn't he been fired?" Lacy told tech news site Recode. "Maybe they're scared to fire him, because they want to send a message that this is what you're supposed to be doing."

"Are we at a point now where it's OK to take out journalists if they disagree with you?" she continued.

Melita Garza, a journalism professor at Texas Christian University, called the whole ordeal "mind-boggling" and said the press is on the right track with its concerns over Michael's comments. "The fiercer the forces are in trying to quell journalists, the more it shows that journalism is needed."

It's unclear how this latest Uber blunder will play out. Lacy, for one, is encouraging Uber customers to also delete their apps, saying passengers have other transportation options.

Michael has since apologized and also sought to distance himself from the controversy. He said in a statement his remarks were "born out of frustration during an informal debate," and "do not reflect my actual views and have no relation to the company's views or approach."

An Uber spokeswoman added, "Those remarks have no basis in the reality of our approach."