When Uber executive Emil Michael proposed that his company dedicate a million dollar budget to hire a team of researchers to dig up dirt on the personal life of journalists critical of the company, specifically journalist Sarah Lacy, he thought he was off record. Unfortunately for Michael, a BuzzFeed editor invited to the event reported his comments.
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.
Michael was particularly focused on one journalist, Sarah Lacy, the editor of the Silicon Valley website PandoDaily, a sometimes combative voice inside the industry. Lacy recently accused Uber of “sexism and misogyny.” She wrote that she was deleting her Uber app after BuzzFeed News reported that Uber appeared to be working with a French escort service. “I don’t know how many more signals we need that the company simply doesn’t respect us or prioritize our safety,” she wrote.
The BuzzFeed post that incited Lacy’s report is titled: Sexist French Uber Promotion Pairs Riders With “Hot Chick” Drivers:
Yesterday, Uber’s Lyon office unveiled a new promotion with an app called “Avions de Chasse.” The deal pairs Uber riders with “hot chick” drivers as they make their way across the city.
“It’s going to be the most beautiful thing on Earth,” the post suggests of the free ride promotion.
Using the promotion, a user can enter his (presumably) code “UBERAVIONS” in his Uber app and “become the luckiest co-pilot of Lyon,” which basically means that a model will pick you up and drive you around…
Avions de chasse” is the French term for “fighter jets”, but also the colloquial term to designate an incredibly hot chick. Lucky you! the world’s most beautiful “Avions” are waiting for you on this app. Seat back, relax and let them take you on cloud 9!
While the Uber blog post is somewhat tame, Avions de Chasse’s website offers far less to the reader/user’s imagination.
There’s also a video, in which a business casual bro/man/dude uses the service. It’s only 1:50 long but it’s full of shots like this:
Michael’s threat has frightened Lacy, not only for herself, but for Uber’s female clients and the other women journalists who cover Uber. Lacy tells Recode reporter Nellie Bowles:
“I’ve never heard a very high-ranking executive at a $20 billion company talking about a million-dollar budget to destroy my life,” she said. “I’ve never heard of a case where someone was bragging about it at a dinner, where it was considered totally socially acceptable…It’s really scary that there’s a company culture where objectification and violence against women is condoned,” she said. “And you run a service where women get into strangers’ cars alone at night….
Many of the reporters who cover Uber critically — Valleywag’s Nitasha Tiku, Forbes’ Ellen Huet and San Francisco Magazine’s Ellen Cushing — are women. Lacy said she was worried about all of them.
“It’s going to keep escalating, and I don’t know what the line is, but there will be a line. Sadly, I don’t think it’s this, I think it’s something scarier,” she said. “It starts to get into the realm of physical harm and physical threats.”
She said she thinks Uber’s campaign to silence reporters will only grow because — despite the current outcry — reporters will now think twice before crossing the company, which knows their credit card information, home addresses, phone numbers and travel patterns.
What is Uber’s reaction? Michael issued a statement saying his remarks don’t reflect how he really feels. He called Lacy to apologize. Uber Co-Founder Travis Kalanick has not made any comment all. Why isn’t Michael fired? Why are investors divesting? Why aren’t more people talking about this story?
It’s not new that Kalanick and his company are being called out for aggressive bro-ness. But much of it seems to roll off his shoulders, even as he continues at the helm of Silicon Valley’s largest private company and garners ever-higher valuations from investors.
This is not acceptable, said Lacy.
“Paula Deen made racially insensitive comments and lost a show, lost very real money. Donald Sterling was forced to sell an NBA team,” she said. “And yet we believe that frighteningly misogynist comments like this, anti-First Amendments comments like this, are ‘boys being boys’ and that ‘they’re geniuses and this is what it takes to build a company.’”
Beyond Uber firing Michael, Lacy wants investors to stop funding Uber.
“The only investors who’ve answered it so far have said, ‘Well, this is bad, but we totally back Travis,’” she said. “How bad is the intimidation around this company? How bad is Silicon Valley when there are very real threats made to a woman and her family?”…
I won’t ride Uber nor will I let my kids use this company. I hope you make the same choice.
Update: Travis Kalanick has begun Tweeting. USA Today reports:
Uber CEO Travis Kalanick called Michael’s comments “terrible,” noting they do not represent the company. “His remarks showed a lack of leadership, a lack of humanity, and a departure from our values and ideals,” he wrote as part of a series of tweets addressing the remarks. However, Kalanick does not mention in any of his 13 tweets whether Michael will continue to work at Uber.
He thought he was off the record, but BuzzFeed’s editor-in-chief Ben Smith wrote up the comments, saying that at no point was BuzzFeed told the comments were off the record.
However, in Smith’s story, there was something that was more than just theoretical, and it’s a good reminder of the scary power Uber has over its users.
Here’s what Smith reported: “The general manager of Uber NYC accessed the profile of a BuzzFeed News reporter, Johana Bhuiyan, to make points in the course of a discussion of Uber policies. At no point in the email exchanges did she give him permission to do so.”