We know this much: Uber has a huge public relations problem on its hands.
On Monday, Buzzfeed reported comments made by a senior vice president on Uber’s team, Emil Michael, at a private dinner. Michael’s comments suggested that he felt Uber would be justified in hiring an opposition research team to dig up dirt on journalists, such as Pando Daily’s Sarah Lacy.
Lacy has been pretty vocal in her criticisms of Uber and other representatives of what she rightly calls Silicon Valley’s “asshole culture.” She called out Uber chief executive Travis Kalanick as an example of the kinds of “assholes” who may be abrasive, but also cultivate a culture of abrasiveness, jerkiness, and — in Uber’s case — misogyny. Lacy wrote that she no longer felt safe riding in Uber cars, because the company had done too little to vet its drivers and cultivated a culture that seemed to treat women as sex objects.
So you can imagine that Uber might be feeling a little uncharitable toward Lacy. But digging up dirt on a journalist in order to get even with her — well, that’s just not something most companies would contemplate.
Apparently, Michael made his comments in a one-on-one conversation with Buzzfeed’s Ben Smith, not in general remarks directed to the whole roomful of people. Smith’s report doesn’t indicate whether this was something Michael was seriously considering, or if it was just an insensitive joke made after a few too many glasses of wine. Nobody else in the room seems to have heard him.
In addition, while Buzzfeed’s report doesn’t say this, there was something in Michael’s comments that made Sarah Lacy afraid for the safety of her family. Her account is not clear on that point, and when I asked her to clarify, she said she didn’t want to get into the details. She told angel investor (and Uber shareholder) Jason Calacanis that “this man threatened my family.”
Either way, Michael’s comments played right into Lacy’s hands, turning her from a one-woman crusader against the Silicon Valley boys’ club into the vanguard of a national story about how crummy Uber is to everyone it comes into contact with, especially women.
Kalanick tweeted a meandering, half-hearted apology for Michael’s comments yesterday, but stopped short of removing Michael from his job. He did note that Michael’s comments “showed a lack of leadership, a lack of humanity, and a departure from our values and ideals.”
But apparently a lack of leadership and humanity is not enough to disqualify someone from a senior leadership position at Uber. OK, Kalanick: Point made.
And by the way: What on Earth is David Plouffe doing, if anything? I thought this guy was hired to fix Uber’s PR problems. Despite his success with the 2008 Obama campaign, he’s not succeeding here.
It’s all about ethics in journalism
Let’s get one thing clear: digging up dirt is one thing; making threats against someone that makes them fear for their family’s safety is a totally different thing.
That applies whether you’re a journalist or not.
Some people, like Kalanick, Michael, or Uber investor Ashton Kutcher might feel like investigating journalists is fair, because that’s what journalists do to them. But I think it’s important to draw the line here: With Uber, as with #GamerGate (whose proponents keep saying that it’s “all about ethics in game journalism”), threatening people’s safety is unacceptable. Whether you’re a journalist, a startup exec, or an angry gamer, doing that is despicable and will only discredit you and your cause.
But short of that line, is it fair to “dig up dirt” on journalists?
Of course it is. It’s long been the case that people covered by journalists have a voice too, and in some cases can reach a larger audience than the journalists do, via their blogs, Twitter, or other media. That fact alone puts journalists and their subjects on a more even playing field.
In addition, journalists need to know that they are potentially subject to the same kind of scrutiny they give to the companies they write about.
I can’t help but notice that all three targets are women, which underscores Lacy’s point about the company’s asshole culture and misogyny.
But at this point, I think it’s safe to say that any journalist writing about Uber is likely going to have their Uber records examined by Uber execs.
That should not be surprising in any way. When Tesla CEO Elon Musk got into an argument with the New York Times about its review of his Model S, one of the first things Musk did was pull up the driving records of the car that the reviewer was testing.
Transparency is not just about journalists volunteering information about some of the venture capitalists who have backed them (as Lacy does occasionally), or which big tech firms they happen to own stock in (as if that kind of disclosure conveyed a sort of ethical blessing).
Transparency also means that the people you’re writing about have the potential to look up information about you and write about it.
So journalists: We might not like this chilly new transparent world we live in. But we should get used to it, and conduct ourselves accordingly.
And in the meantime, those of us who consider ourselves journalists will continue to write as fearlessly and factually as possible when companies like Uber make aggressive, threatening moves aimed at silencing criticism.
I don’t speak for all journalists, but I know I have a code that I strive to live by. Even if I don’t live up to it all the time, it’s a guidepost. And I’m pretty upfront about it. Every writer on VentureBeat’s staff has to endorse our ethics policy and link to it from their bios.
So you know where we’re coming from.
Uber? It’s not so clear. If it truly believes that that digging up dirt on journalists is okay, then its ethical code hasn’t evolved much beyond the grade school taunt “turnabout is fair play.” And we should treat the company accordingly.
So until Uber makes some meaningful changes, I won’t be using its services. And I hope you won’t, either.