"Safe writing, ladies": It's female reporters who are holding Uber's feet to the fire

By Sarah Lacy , written on May 22, 2015

From The News Desk

After a year of threatening and intimidating multiple female journalists who wouldn't fall in line, Uber appears to have awaken a sleeping female reporting giant.

I'm heartened to see that while David Plouffe's photo opps may have distracted much of the tech blog corps (before, yunno, Plouffe got unceremoniously kicked upstairs to make way for the harder-charging Rachel Whetstone), it's largely female reporters who are continuing to ask Uber the hard questions. (With the noted exception of Kara Swisher.)

Remember Buzzfeed reporter Johana Bhuiyan? She's the one who Uber's New York GM Josh Mohrer tracked using "God View"-- in clear violation of the company's policies. There was an "investigation," but don't worry, just like Emil Michael, he's still in his job. Meantime, Bhuiyan continues to do some of the most comprehensive reporting on the company writing recently in an article about how far Uber would go now that it's dominated ride sharing in the US: "[Uber] has a killer and convenient product, morals be damned."

And more recently, there was an excellent piece in the Philadelphia City Paper where senior staff writer Emily Guendelsberger, went undercover to expose what it was truly like to drive for Uber. Spoiler: Absolutely nothing like Uber would have you believe. (We interviewed Emily about her experience in the last PandoLIVE.)

And now, the latest comes from... of all places women's magazine Marie Claire. In a remarkable piece of business journalism, Marie Claire's Stacy Perman asks the simple question every woman reading their magazine should ponder: Is Uber Dangerous for Women?

Women's magazines usually tell you what you want to hear (You can have better sex! You can have the body you always wanted in 28 days! This haircut flatters everyone!)  It takes guts to hit them with an uncomfortable truth that no single female urbanite wants to acknowledge when she opens her glossy fashion mag: The ride sharing service they all love may not be the safest option.

And it's not just women's magazines who don't want to think about this. No one wants to think too hard about Uber's bad behavior, because it's such a better service than taxis and so much more widespread than Lyft. As late night talk show host Seth Myers bemoaned in his hilarious Uber rant:

"This stinks for me. Whenever some product or group does something disgraceful, it's always something I like. Uber. Chick-fil-A. The NFL. Sure I could eat KFC while trying to hail a taxi on my way to a hockey game but I don't want to."
Indeed, the ugly soul of Uber is an uncomfortable truth that even Silicon Valley doesn't want to acknowledge. Uber is the highest valued private company in Silicon Valley right now-- the most full throated exuberant evidence that technology can rewire the real world and the mobile web will unlock entire new multi-billion dollar industries we never expected. And yet, its tactics make even those profiting off of it feel, at least, queasy. As Valley insider John Battelle wrote, "I’ve not met a single person in this industry who doesn’t express reservations about Uber." Not a single person. And that line appeared in a piece that was mostly in defense of Uber.

More impressive, when the company pushed back with its usual talking points, Perman didn't just swallow them unlike a lot of tech reporters... she actually challenged them. (Disclosure: I was interviewed for and quoted in this story as well.)

First Uber, speaking via its spokesperson for this story, general counsel Salle Yoo,  tried its usual "but we require stricter background checks than cabs!" line:

In ads and promotional materials, Uber bills itself as "the safest ride on the road" and says it adheres to "the strictest safety standards." Yoo insists that the company's safety measures "always exceed what is required of local taxi companies." That doesn't quite square with the reality, though. Local ordinances vary depending on the city, and in places like Philadelphia, Seattle, and Boston, Uber's criminal background checks, which go back seven years, do, in fact, supersede those of local taxi agencies. But most cities around the country (San Francisco, Indianapolis, Chicago, and Houston, to name just a few) also require finger- printing, which is then cross-referenced against federal databases that track violent offenders. Several, like New York, L.A., Phoenix, and Chicago, even mandate drug testing. Uber only requires the background checks.

And then Uber went to its usual go to defense: Way more assaults happen in cabs!

To be clear, a drunk passenger is vulnerable whether she's in an Uber or a taxi. But Yoo claims that such incidents "actually happen to Uber less by a huge margin. That's not to say that is any sort of a defense, that's just a fact." Problem is, law enforcement statistics do not break out where assaults occur. Marie Claire asked Yoo for the source of her comment—how does she know you're more likely to be assaulted in a cab?—but at press time, she had yet to provide it.

That's right, Uber. If you are going to say something is a "fact," you need to provide some data, or, at least a source of how you know that is a "fact." It's astounding: Uber and its investors say this talking point all the time and to my knowledge they've never once provided evidence to show it is actually indeed actually a fact. It just sounds plausible so most reporters just nod and write it down "cabs are more dangerous."

Perhaps they thought a women's magazine would be even easier to snow than, say, Re/Code or TechCrunch.

Further there was this gem from a then-soon-to-be-replaced Plouffe:

"Have we had a few bumps reputationally along the road? Sure, we've had some growing pains," says David Plouffe, the former Obama campaign manager who joined Uber last summer as senior vice president of public policy and strategy. "But you have to understand the relationship that is most important to an Uber rider is that relationship with their Uber driver, and it's one that they really cherish."

Wait. So the justification for the company's horrific behavior and reputation among women is that riders only have to like the drivers, not Travis Kalanick? That's some spin. Particularly because the relationship between women and Uber drives is hardly flawless. Even stranger: Kalanick has been clear that he can't wait until drivers are replaced with self-driving cars. So this will be a... temporary cherishing of a relationship?

At the end of the piece, Yoo seemed to back down from the earlier rhetoric saying "As a company we are always trying to do better." To which, Perman ended her piece with the damning retort: "In the meantime, safe travels, ladies."

Here's what Uber has to be careful of when a reporter like Perman comes calling: Tech blogs care about valuations and growth and what powerful VCs tell them they should care about. But consumer press cares about the service and safety. Right now the broader consumer press on Uber is still mostly fawning, but if this narrative turns all the way towards "concern-porn," a big valuation and leaked "we're killing it!" financials don't help you pull that back. If anything, painting Uber as a powerful mega-corp, hurts the narrative more. The answers are going to need to get a lot better than "facts" that can't be actually proven.

I'll take comfort in one thing: Neither Perman nor Guendelsberger has reported any threats of retaliation from Uber for their widely-read and (in the case of Guendelsberger) damning pieces. The company may still hate the free press, but they seem to have realized that threatening journalists only makes its image worse. (Or at least, David Plouffe did. We'll see under the Murdoch-friendly new regime...)

Still, when retaliation against me was mentioned to Buzzfeed's Ben Smith it was proposed to be done in a way that would never be traced back to Uber. So I'll close this piece with my own warning: "Safe writing, ladies."