“These new attacks threatened to hit at my only vulnerability. The only part of my life that I’d do anything to protect: My family and my children.”
That was Sarah Lacy, editor-in-chief of the Silicon Valley site Pando Daily, after learning that she’d been targeted for harassment by Uber.
This is a tale of corporate arrogance, of hostility toward journalists, and of one woman who stood up to one of the fastest-growing companies in America. It’s also a disaster for Uber, which once enjoyed the image of a cool, innovative company that outsmarted the taxi industry and now seems like a gang of adolescent dirt-diggers.
BuzzFeed broke the story of how a top Uber executive, Emir Michael, “suggested that the company should consider hiring a team of opposition researchers to dig up dirt on its critics in the media — and specifically to spread details of the personal life of a female journalist who has criticized the company.”
And the source? Michael himself, at what was supposed to be an off-the-record dinner with journalists.
Leaving aside the mendacity of targeting someone’s personal life because you don’t like what she’s written, how clueless do you have to be to talk about going after journalists at a table full of journalists?
What’s more, the reason this is chilling is that Uber has personal information on where and when its passengers go. There’s an assumption that this info remains private, but a corporation out to smear someone could certainly misuse it.
The backstory is that Lacy, an aggressive journalist who once worked for Business Week, has been torching Uber. She has accused the company of “sexism and misogyny.” She said she was deleting her Uber app after BuzzFeed’s report that the firm appeared to be working with a French escort service.
Now it was payback time.
Over dinner, says BuzzFeed, Michael “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…
“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.”
This is ugly, ugly stuff.
But here’s an unintentionally funny line from the piece: “His remarks came as Uber seeks to improve its relationship with the media and the image of its management team, who have been cast as insensitive and hyper-aggressive.” How’s that workin’ out for ya?
The piece, by BuzzFeed Editor-in-Chief Ben Smith, said journalist Michael Wolff, who did some of the inviting, failed to communicate to those attending that the dinner was supposed to be off the record. But how would the participants, who included Arianna Huffington, have reacted if it was declared off the record? Would the threat have remained secret?
In a statement, Emir Michael retreated to I-said-it-but-didn’t-mean-it territory:
“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.”
An Uber spokeswoman added that the company doesn’t do oppo research and doesn’t deem Lacy’s personal life to be fair game.
But what is the personal impact on someone like Lacy? She got the call while having dinner in London.
“I stood numb listening to Smith asking me if I had a comment, and I thought of my kids. They were somewhere covered in kitten and dinosaur pajamas giggling and running through the house in a last ditch effort to fight bedtime. Maybe they were looking up at the moon, remembering how many times I’ve told them I’d always be somewhere looking at the same moon even if I couldn’t be there to rock them.
“I had two thoughts. The first was: What possible comment could I give Smith to sum up the terror I felt over an attack at my family?
“And then this: Please, God, let this be how bad it gets. Please let the worst of this be that I have to one day have the ‘Mommy has a lot of people who hate her because of what she writes…’ conversation with them.”
That’s how low Uber has sunk.
Lacy concludes by asking folks in Silicon Valley and in Washington to “see this latest horror as a wakeup call and decide this is enough. That the First Amendment and rights of journalists do matter. That companies shouldn’t be allowed to go to illegal lengths to defame and silence reporters. That all these nice words about gender equality in tech aren’t just token board appointments every once in a while. That professional women in this industry actually deserve respect. That they shouldn’t be bullied with the same old easy slurs about bitchiness or sexual objectification. That deep scary misogyny in a culture isn’t something that you hire a campaign manager to ‘message out’ of a founder, nor is it something you excuse as genius at work. That there is a line someone can cross, even amid an era where the Valley believes founders can never be fired.”
Uber has a big problem. This is not a brief PR embarrassment that can be swept under the rug.
Lacy writes in an update that Emil Michael called her cell and asked to speak off the record. She refused. He later sent her this email:
“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.”
The irony is that Michael was not outed by some shadowy source; he was hung by his own words.
Uber recently hired former Obama campaign manager David Plouffe as senior vice president. Is Plouffe going to tolerate this sort of behavior?
Footnote: Uber CEO Travis Kalanick has apologized for Michael’s “terrible” comments, saying his lieutenant had demonstrated a “lack of leadership, a lack of humanity and a departure from our values and ideals.”
Howard Kurtz is a Fox News analyst and the host of "MediaBuzz" (Sundays 11 a.m.). He is the author of five books and is based in Washington. Follow him at @HowardKurtz. Click here for more information on Howard Kurtz.