Should Uber CEO Travis Kalanick fire one of his closest top lieutenants for suggesting at a private dinner party that the company should spend $1 million to investigate the private lives of journalists critical of it?
Last night, BuzzFeed reported that Uber SVP of Business Emil Michael made what can only be described as threatening remarks about mounting a smear campaign against journalists who wrote negative things about Uber.
The specific target of his ire was PandoDaily’s Editor in Chief Sarah Lacy, who has penned a number of tough articles about the hugely funded San Francisco ride-sharing company, on topics that include whether Uber’s service is unsafe for women.
Her reporting has clearly struck a nerve inside Uber, but Michael’s comments took normal irritation with the media to a creepy and appalling new level.
“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.”
In addition, Michael said — using logic that defies explanation — that one of Lacy’s posts could actually put women in danger.
“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,” wrote BuzzFeed’s Ben Smith.
Smith attended the dinner with a number of New York-based media people, including the Huffington Post’s Arianna Huffington, the New Republic’s Chris Hughes and iHeartMedia’s Bob Pittman. It was organized by Ian Osborne, who was helping Kalanick meet them.
After some chit-chat among the group of 18, there was a Q&A with Kalanick, in which Smith asked about his thoughts on Obamacare. Later, Smith and Michael and several others were at one end of the table, where the discussion of Uber’s ongoing fights with some in the media took place. There were no other reporters present.
Sources said Smith was never explicitly told the dinner was off the record, though many reporters often assume private events are. So Smith reported (and how!).
After the BuzzFeed piece, Michael issued a denial/apology statement that wasn’t really either, saying that the reported comments “do not reflect my actual views and have no relation to the company’s views or approach.” Michael later apologized directly to Lacy on Twitter, after calling her by phone last night.
Michael came to Uber from social media ranking company Klout, where he was COO, and was appointed this summer by the Department of Defense to a council that advises the agency on business.
Uber scrambled to manage its latest PR gaffe. “We have not, do not and will not investigate journalists. Those remarks have no basis in the reality of our approach,” said Uber communications head Nairi Hourdajian.
But, damage done.
Michael’s remarks are perhaps the most aggressive from a top Uber exec, even though it has taken a very combative approach to its multi-front battles against the taxi industry and others. It has long been clear that this culture of aggression is pervasive in its long history of blunders, which Lacy especially has covered.
While Uber’s tough-guy approach has had both its fans and critics, the bro culture has morphed here into a much uglier form that could have an impact on the company. It is now raising even huger funding — valuing the company at more than $25 billion — and pressure from investors might force Kalanick to step up and do something about Michael’s comments.
Whether that includes firing Michael is unclear at this point, according to sources at the company.
But there is precedent for such a move. When Hewlett-Packard was found to be spying on reporters, those involved at the company later resigned amid increasing pressure, including from legislators.
While Michael may not have actually spied on Lacy or others, his suggestion was quite detailed and disturbing and was a clear attack on her personal life and reputation.
And where was Kalanick while this rant was occurring? Re/code was told by sources close to Uber that he was not involved in the conversation in question, as he was seated separately at the dinner at the other end of a long table.
But he bears responsibility for Michael’s remarks nonetheless and still has not spoken out himself on the controversy. (It should be noted that Kalanick is typically an active tweeter.)
In a response to the BuzzFeed piece, Lacy underscored that:
“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. It’s impossible to prove that Kalanick directly ordered things like slut-shaming female passengers or the creepy Lyon ad — and, to be clear, there’s no evidence he was personally involved in either of those scandals — but let’s be clear: The acceptance of this kind of behavior comes from the top.”
(Additional reporting by Kara Swisher.)
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.