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Uber exec proposed publishing journalists’ personal secrets to fight bad press

Emil Michael, senior vice president of business for Uber. (David Paul Morris/Bloomberg)

An executive from the popular ride-sharing service Uber is in trouble for suggesting the company publicize the details of journalists’ personal lives in retaliation for unfavorable coverage.

Uber’s senior vice president of business, Emil Michael, made the comments at a private dinner on Friday at Manhattan’s Waverly Inn to a crowd that included a Buzzfeed reporter, publisher Arianna Huffington and actor Edward Norton, BuzzFeed’s editor-in-chief Ben Smith reported.

Michael later apologized for his remarks through an Uber spokeman, and said he believed the conversation was off-the-record.

Michael floated the idea of spending “a million dollars” to hire “four top opposition researchers and four journalists” to “help Uber fight back against the press” by looking into “your personal lives, your families,” referring to reporters who write unflattering stories about Uber.

Somebody at the table suggested the plan could be problematic for Uber. “Nobody would know it was us,” Michael said according to Buzzfeed.

Michael called out by name Sarah Lacy, editor of the tech blog PandoDaily, who recently accused Uber of “sexism and misogyny” over a promotional deal Uber offered in France pairing riders with “hot chick” drivers. Photos of the drivers, all lingerie-clad women, appeared on the app — much like a dating or escort service app — for customers to choose from. “I don’t know how many more signals we need that the company simply doesn’t respect us or prioritize our safety,” she wrote, declaring she would delete the Uber app from her phone.

According to Buzzfeed, Michael was outraged by the article, and said Lacy should be held “personally responsible” for any women who deleted the Uber app and was sexually assaulted by a cab driver. Michael claimed cab drivers are more likely to assault woman than Uber drivers. He alluded to a personal fact about Lacy that Uber could expose, but did not specify what it was.

On Monday night, Lacy wrote in a post for Pando Daily she felt “numb” after Buzzfeed contacted her about the story: “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.”

In a statement reported by Buzzfeed, Michael said: “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 spokesman Nairi Hourdajian said in a statement reported by the New York Times: “We have not, do not and will not investigate journalists. Those remarks have no basis in the reality of our approach.”

This is not the first time Uber has been accused of underhanded tactics. Competitor ride-sharing service Lyft accused Uber earlier this year of trying to undercut its business by ordering more than 5,000 rides and then canceling them at the last minute to tie up its drivers. The Verge reported in August that Uber was trying to poach drivers from competitors by hiring recruiters to create fake accounts with Lyft and other services so they could order rides and give their drivers the sales pitch, sometimes offering iPhones and other items the driver would need to defect to Uber on the spot. Uber denies all wrongdoing.

Uber and its founder Travis Kalanick have gotten a reputation for being ruthless to make a buck. The company notoriously hiked its fare prices during Hurricane Sandy, forcing natural disaster victims to pay double.