The moment I learned just how far Uber will go to silence journalists and attack women
A big debate among the Pando staff for the past two years has been over just how morally bankrupt Uber is. Earlier this evening, a bombshell story by Buzzfeed editor-in-chief Ben Smith proves the reality is way worse than anyone on our team could have expected.
And that’s saying something.
Back in 2012, Paul Carr first raised serious concerns about the company’s view that both riders and drivers are disposable commodities in an all-out Randian battle to maximize profits. He uninstalled the app when he wrote that piece, and he started a drumbeat of press around these concerns.
Then, in 2014, Carmel DeAmicis exposed that an Uber driver accused of assault had a criminal record that should have been uncovered by the background checks Uber claimed to do. She further documented a “blame the passenger” culture at the company when such complaints came up.
It started to snowball: An investigation at The Verge exposed cut throat competitive tactics that the company has taken against its primary competitor Lyft.
Then, a few weeks ago, I wrote a story about the outrageous sexism woven deeply into the culture of the company. We’ve seen it in the company’s PR team discrediting female passengers who accuse drivers of attacking them by whispering that they were “drunk” or “dressed provocatively.”
We’ve seen it in CEO Travis Kalanick’s comments that he calls the company “boober” because of all the tail he gets since running it.
And on October 22, we saw it again with an offensive campaign in Lyon that encouraged riders to get picked up by hot female drivers, essentially a scary invitation to objectify (or worse) any woman working for the company. That ad was taken down once exposed by Buzzfeed, but sources tell us no one was fired for taking that kind of “initiative.” We also heard that Kalanick’s misogyny is such a problem that recently hired political operative David Plouffe had made it a priority to work on the CEO’s behavior. As if that kind of misogyny-- and encouragement of it in a corporate culture-- is something that careful media training can repair rather than simply disguise.
I have known many of Uber’s key investors and founders personally for six to ten years. 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.
When I saw the Lyon post, it was finally enough for me. As a woman and mother of two young kids, I no longer felt safe using Uber and deleted the app from my phone.
And yet, somehow, despite years now of Pando carefully chronicling this disturbing escalation of horrible behavior -- which has been considered cute by many of the other tech blogs and excused away by the VCs profiting off Uber-- the company still has the ability to shock and horrify me.
Today, in his horrifying scoop, Smith writes about the the lengths that at least one Uber executive, Emil Michael, was willing to go to discredit anyone-- particularly a woman-- who may try to question how Uber operates.
Ruining her life? Manufacturing lies? Going after her family? Apparently it’s all part of what Uber has described as its “political campaign” to build a $30 billion (and counting) tech company. A campaign that David Plouffe was hired to “run,” that’s looking more like a pathetic version of play acting House of Cards than a real campaign run by a real political professional. Because step one of an illegal smear campaign against a woman is: Don’t brag about it to a journalist at a party.
The woman in question? The woman that this Uber executive has vowed to go to nearly any lengths to ruin, to bully into silence? Me.
I first heard of this when Smith called me for comment over the weekend. I was out late at a work dinner in London and stepped out into the cold to take the call. A chill ran down my spine that had little to do with the weather, as he described the bizarre interaction. 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.
We are used to intimidation here. We’ve had sources try to intimidate Pando into silence by withholding access, threatening $300 million lawsuits, spreading lies about our relationships with our backers-- or even suggesting that we’re funded by the CIA. We have mobs unleashed on us on Twitter, seemingly weekly.
So my concern wasn’t more lies winding up online about me. Sadly, I’ve had to get used to it. My concern was that the nature of these lies weren’t the same trumped up bullshit about Pando being influenced by its investors. That smear hasn’t worked, and we share several investors with Uber, so that dog doesn’t exactly hunt.
No, these new attacks threatened to hit at my only vulnerability. The only part of my life that I’d do anything to protect: My family and my children.
In that moment outside an Indian restaurant in London, I stood numb listening to Smith asking me if I had a comment, and I thought of my kids. They were somewhere covered in kitten and dinosaur pajamas giggling and running through the house in a last ditch effort to fight bedtime. Maybe they were looking up at the moon, remembering how many times I’ve told them I’d always be somewhere looking at the same moon even if I couldn’t be there to rock them.
I had two thoughts. The first was: What possible comment could I give Smith to sum up the terror I felt over an attack at my family?
And then this: Please, God, let this be how bad it gets. Please let the worst of this be that I have to one day have the “Mommy has a lot of people who hate her because of what she writes…” conversation with them.
I begged no deity in particular that the escalation of dangerous, win-at-all-costs, no-matter-the-casualties warfare Uber has waged on anyone-- drivers, riders, or journalists-- who crosses them could just end here. That it could just end with a wild plan of lies and character assassination of me, personally. I could weather that.
Sadly, I don’t see any reason to think it will. Unless forces more powerful than me in the Valley-- or even Washington DC-- see this latest horror as a wakeup call and decide this is enough. That the First Amendment and rights of journalists do matter. That companies shouldn’t be allowed to go to illegal lengths to defame and silence reporters. That all these nice words about gender equality in tech aren’t just token board appointments every once in a while. That professional women in this industry actually deserve respect. That they shouldn’t be bullied with the same old easy slurs about bitchiness or sexual objectification. That deep scary misogyny in a culture isn’t something that you hire a campaign manager to “message out” of a founder, nor is it something you excuse as genius at work. That there is a line someone can cross, even amid an era where the Valley believes founders can never be fired.
Simply put: That this isn’t OK.
I’ve seen other times the Valley’s greed has tiptoed into this range. It came out that HP pretexted reporters, illegally spying on them to find out where leaks were coming from. There was the time that Facebook hired Burson-Marsteller to persuade journalists to attack Google. And we’ve chronicled a shocking wage collusion suit that unfairly suppressed the wages of millions.
Each time the Valley’s soul was pulled back to center not because the bad actors in question suddenly had a crisis of confidence, but because powerful forces made them recalibrate. HP was hauled into court. Facebook was exposed in the press and shamed into changing tactics. And the only reason the wage collusion pact didn’t ultimately succeed was because emerging powerhouses like Facebook and LinkedIn refused to take part. That’s still winding its way through the courts, and the victims may eventually get something close to restitution.
Uber’s dangerous escalation of behavior has just had its whistleblower moment, and tellingly, the whistleblower wasn’t a staffer with a conscience, it was an executive boasting about the proposed plan. It’s gone so far, that there are those in the company who don’t even realize this is something you try to cover up. It’s like a five-year-old pretending to be Frank Underwood. Only one with billions of dollars of assets at his disposal.
And lest you think this was just a rogue actor and not part of the company’s game plan, let me remind you Kalanick telegraphed exactly this sort of thing when he sat on stage at the Code Conference last spring and said he was hiring political operatives whose job would be to “throw mud.” I naively thought he just meant Taxi companies. Let me also remind you: This is a company you trust with your personal safety every single time you use it. Let me also remind you: The executive in question has not been fired.
Uber has more than thirty investors including:
(UPDATE: An earlier version of this post listed 500 Startups as an Uber investor, based on their listing on Crunchbase. Dave McClure has responded in the comments to say that they are not.)
I've already started to reach out to the major ones individually to ask, on the record, whether they will continue to publicly and privately support the company in light of these most recent scandals. Whether there is any line that Kalanick can cross that goes too far. And I’m encouraging anyone concerned about this dangerous escalation of the Uber playbook-- from callous libertarian to boasting brogrammer to deeply bullying and misogynist leader of a massive company-- to ask the same questions.
The story I wrote a few weeks ago had enough of an impact that those within Uber decided they need to destroy me personally at any cost. The market is turning on Uber, seeing the company’s soul for what it is. With any luck, Ben Smith’s scoop will finally force real change from the inside.
UPDATE: Emil Michael called my cell phone shortly after I published this and asked to talk off the record. I'm not entirely sure how he got my phone number as I've never met or previously spoken with him. I told Michael that I would not talk to him off the record. This is an issue of vital importance to our readers, Uber's riders, journalists and women in the Valley, and I will not have a conversation I can't share with them. He said goodbye and hung up.
UPDATE II: After the above update, Michael sent me the following email...
Dear Sarah,I wanted to apologize to you directly — I am sorry. I was at an event and was venting, but what I said was never intended to describe actions that would ever be undertaken by me or my company toward you or anyone else. I was definitively wrong and I feel terrible about any distress I have caused you. Again, I am sorry.