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Uber executive suggests a journalist smear campaign

November 18, 2014

The popular ride-service company Uber is in damage control mode after a senior vice president expressed interest in unveiling details about the private lives of journalists in retaliation for unflattering coverage of Uber’s business practices.

Buzzfeed reported Monday that Emil Michael, who says he believed his comments were off the record, expressed his feelings during a private dinner in New York about the company’s media critics, some of whom have recently reported that Uber encourages sexist behavior in its executives, along with drivers and clients.

A Buzzfeed editor was present at the dinner on Friday. Buzzfeed’s editor-in-chief Ben Smith, who broke the story Monday, says Michael specifically mentioned a female journalist who criticized the company on the site Pando Daily.

Sarah Lacy published a story on Oct. 22 expressing her outrage about a recent Uber promotion advertising “hot chick” drivers. The app offered photos of lingerie-clad women who could be selected and hired by clients, not unlike the business model of an escort service. Lacy says in her post that the promotion fueled her decision to delete the Uber app from her phone.

The promotion has since been removed from the Uber website. Screenshots of the ad can be found here in an October Buzzfeed article.

Monday’s piece in Buzzfeed says Michael described his idea for uncovering personal details about Lacy and other journalists.

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 responded to the story on Pando Daily, saying she felt “numb” after hearing about Michael’s comments and that she feared for her family.

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.

Lacy also reported in her post that Michael had called her cell phone, asking to speak with her off the record. When she refused, she says he hung up.

Michael has since issued an apology. His statement to the media claimed his comments were not meant to be taken seriously.

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.

Uber communications rep Nairi Hourdajian said in a separate statement: “We have not, do not and will not investigate journalists. Those remarks have no basis in the reality of our approach.”

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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