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An executive at Uber Technologies Inc. has come under fire for saying that the mobile car-booking startup should hire a team of opposition researchers to dig up dirt on journalists who are critical of the company.

Emil Michael, Uber’s senior vice president of business, was speaking at a dinner in New York last week that included BuzzFeed Editor-in-Chief Ben Smith, who reported on the comments Monday. Michael suggested the company was willing to spend $1 million to look into journalists’ personal lives, according to BuzzFeed’s article.

Uber, which fetched a valuation of $17 billion in a funding round in June, has been expanding operations at a breakneck pace since it debuted in 2009, offering services in more than 220 cities worldwide. The company has disrupted established taxi and limousine industries, with customers using their smartphones to book car services. Uber’s efforts to promote and boost its business have drawn the attention of some regulators, as well as media outlets.

Personal threats are “often the last-ditch resort to try get journalists to dial down their intense scrutiny,” said Kelly McBride, vice president at the Poynter Institute, a journalism school. “It’s not uncommon when you challenge authority that authority fights back.”

Michael said in a statement that he regretted making the remarks, which he said were “borne out of frustration during an informal debate over what I feel is sensationalistic media coverage of the company.”

The executive focused in particular on reporting by Sarah Lacy, the editor of PandoDaily, a technology news website, BuzzFeed reported. Lacy had written several stories critical of Uber’s business practices.

“We have not, do not and will not investigate journalists,” Sarah Maxwell, a spokeswoman for San Francisco-based Uber, said in a statement. “Those remarks have no basis in the reality of our approach.”

Lacy responded to Michael’s comments in a column, saying the incident reflected a “morally bankrupt” culture at Uber. Lacy later updated the column to say that Michael contacted her and apologized.

BuzzFeed’s article and Lacy’s response, shared widely via social media, reflect the public’s interest in personal narratives, according to McBride.

“The audience tends to be drawn to personal narratives, so when a reporter writes from personal experience that tends to get more of a response in social media because it’s more human,” McBride said.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
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