As pressure mounts, Uber doubles down on its smear campaign against Pando, Buzzfeed and other media

By Paul Bradley Carr , written on November 19, 2014

From The News Desk

Uber is not backing down.

Despite making national and international headlines for their proposal to launch a $1m spear campaign against Pando's Sarah Lacy and her family, and then making even more headlines for their NY chief's misuse of journalists' rider data, this morning the company tried once again to silence criticism.

Their latest weapon? Celebrity investor Ashton Kutcher.

Earlier today, Kutcher, whose A-Grade  investment vehicle is an investor in Uber, tweeted a question...

 'What is so wrong about digging up dirt on shady journalist?'
Unsurprisingly, Kutcher's 16.5m followers had plenty to say in response, but perhaps not what the "Dude, Where's My Car?" star was expecting. As the Verge put it: "Ashton Kutcher, Uber investor, wanders into the dumbest fight of his life," while the Guardian's Stuart Dredge helpfully explained what's wrong with Uber 'digging up dirt' on journalists.

Less than an hour after his original Tweet, Kutcher walked back his comments...

Screen Shot 2014-11-19 at 2.52.59 PM And yet. As Kutcher and his friends at Uber know perfectly well, the damage was already done. Just by floating the idea that Sarah is a "shady journalist," he was able to shift the conversation to whether such "shady journalists" should be fair game. Never mind the fact that he didn't explain exactly what makes Sarah "shady" beyond us reporting the facts about Uber, and never mind the fact that Kutcher failed to disclose that he is an Uber investor.

At almost the same time as Kutcher made his move, Uber apparently launched a second PR wave against Sarah and Pando.

Michael Wolff, another guest at the "off the record dinner" at which Emil Michael laid out his company's strategy to smear journalists, published a column in USA today purporting to describe the "behind the scenes" story of the event. After admitting that -- oops! -- he forgot to tell attendees that the event was supposed to be off the record, he went on to suggest that Emil Michaels comments might have been a joke or "a half-bottle of wine rant."

After all, how likely is it that a company planning to investigate reporters is going to divulge this to a reporter, even in an off-the-record conversation? If you believe that, there are many worthless tech companies I could sell you. So if he did not literally mean we're going to spy on the press, then what was Michael trying to say?
Any media studies students in the house will recognize the rhetorical tactic being employed here. Wolff sets up the premise that maybe -- just maybe -- Michael's comments weren't serious after all, or at least might have just been drunken braggadacio. Having done so, he then goes on to ask what Michael really did mean. Because obviously Uber's SVP of Business, who also works for the Pentagon, couldn't really be considering doing opposition research on a reporter.

Curiously enough, Wolff's piece was followed not long afterwards by an almost identical piece by Politico's Dylan Byers, who just so happened to work for Michael Wolff at Ad Week in 2011. Byers' piece ends thus:

It's troubling to watch the digital lynch mob on Twitter promote the idea that a man should be fired from his job because he floated an idea, however unsavory, over dinner. Yes, it is frightening to think that an executive at a powerful company entertains the idea of investigating journalists. But it is also frightening that many journalists who rely on the freedom of speech think someone should be fired because he said something crazy at the Waverly Inn on a Friday night.
Again -- according to Byers, this wasn't a threat by a high ranking Uber executive with the means and the experience to carry it out. It was just a crazy "idea" floated drunkenly at dinner. Nothing to worry about!

Let's just put that lie to bed right now: Emil Michael isn't a random dude, shooting his mouth at dinner. He is a Harvard and Stanford Law graduate with experience in the DOD. He works at the same company that just hired experienced political strategist David Plouffe as Senior Vice President of Policy and Strategy and whose CEO described his company as a "political campaign" and suggested he would be forced to "throw mud" at rivals.

Here's what Emil Michael actually said, according to Buzzfeed's Ben Smith:

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...

At the dinner, Michael expressed outrage at Lacy’s column and said that women are far more likely to get assaulted by taxi drivers than Uber drivers. He said that he thought Lacy should be held “personally responsible” for any woman who followed her lead in deleting Uber and was then sexually assaulted.

Then he returned to the opposition research plan. Uber’s dirt-diggers, Michael said, could expose Lacy. They could, in particular, prove a particular and very specific claim about her personal life... That phrase "opposition research" is important, as is the fact he laid out a specific budget and the size of the team who would be involved, and the fact that as Senior Vice President of Business, Michael would absolutely be in a position to influence Uber's strategy at the highest level.

As a seasoned political operative, Michael knows exactly what opposition research means. For the rest of us, Wikipedia is useful:

Opposition research (often referred to as oppo) is a term used to classify and describe efforts of supporters or paid consultants of a political candidate to legally investigate the biographical, legal or criminal, medical, educational, financial, public and private administrative and or voting records of the opposing candidate...

Opposition research differs immensely depending on the size and funding of a campaign, the ethics of the candidate, and the era in which it is conducted. Information gathering can be classified into three main categories: open-source research enabled by the Freedom of Information Actcovert operations or "tradecraft, " and maintenance of human systems of informants. Increasingly, data-mining of electronic records is used... [O]thers initiate whisper campaigns that employ techniques of disinformation or "black ops" to deliberately mislead the public by advancing a pre-determined "narrative" that will present the opponent in a negative light. When a man like Emil Michael -- who previously was head of the Harvard Republican Club, parachuted with the military and then worked as a special assistant to secretary of defense Robert Gates  -- uses the phrase "opposition research," that's precisely what he means.

When Uber spokeswoman Nairi Hourdajian assured Buzzfeed that the company "does not do 'oppo research' of any sort on journalists, and has never considered doing it," her casual use of the familiar term "oppo" gives us another clear sign that this is a company that is perfectly comfortable with the phrase, and its meaning.

That's why even Travis Kalanick was forced to describe Michael's threat as inhuman and why people with deep knowledge of Uber's modus operandi suggested that Sarah seriously step up her personal security in response to the threat.

As the story of Uber's criminal and outrageous targeting of journalists refuses to die, so too will Uber's attempts to throw thicker and thicker mud at those of us reporting on them. Emil Michael still hasn't been fired and already I'm hearing that Uber is trying to plant rumors that, in fact, this whole scandal has been created by Uber's major rival, Lyft. How exactly Lyft is supposed to have convinced an Uber executive to boast of doing "oppo" research against Pando's editor in chief is unclear.

Still, at least one reporter is happy to help spin the rumor. Wolff's piece ends in a classic "just sayin'"  smear:

BuzzFeed itself — a financial play as much as Uber is — has key investors who are investors in Uber's main competitor, Lyft. Those investors are, too, investors in PandoDaily. Does this have any bearing at all on the cost of tea in China? I don't know. But I know that little in this world is what it seems.
What Wolff, uh, forgets to mention is that while, yes, Pando does share investors with Lyft, we also have even more investors in common with Uber.

As for the idea that little in this world is what it seems, that's certainly true. As one seasoned media critic told me today, it's hard to imagine the Michael Wolff who will now gladly peddle smears against his fellow journalists in order to stay invited to the best parties in New York is the same Michael Wolff who, years earlier, boasted of heroically poking the DOD in the eye during a trip to Qatar. I guess the highest echelons of American political and media power aren't so bad, when Michael Wolff really gets to know them.