Yesterday evening, BuzzFeed News reported that an Uber executive detailed a plan to "hire four top opposition researchers and four journalists" to act as a sort of defense against what he saw as a wave of recent antagonistic press coverage.
The comments, Buzzfeed said, came from Emil Michael, Uber's senior vice president for business, during a private dinner in New York last week. Michael's comments, BuzzFeed said, focused on one journalist in particular, Sarah Lacy, who runs the technology site Pando. Lacy has been an outspoken critic of Uber and of Travis Kalanick, the company's chief executive.
Shortly after the article appeared, Michael backed away from the comments.
"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," Michael said in a statement. "They were wrong no matter the circumstance and I regret them." Uber has said that the private dinner was supposed to be considered an off-the-record affair.
Nairi Hourdajian, an Uber spokeswoman, said: "We have not, do not and will not investigate journalists. Those remarks have no basis in the reality of our approach."
Fight the press
The article from BuzzFeed, written by Ben Smith, the site's editor in chief, said the plan Michael outlined could, in Michael's words, "help Uber fight back against the press." The researchers, he said, would look into "your personal lives, your families" - referring to journalists - and give the media a taste of its own medicine.
Lacy responded yesterday with an article on her site.
"Companies shouldn't be allowed to go to illegal lengths to defame and silence reporters," she said. "Professional women in this industry actually deserve respect."
The statements comes at a particularly difficult time for Uber, which has faced criticism for its cutthroat tactics with competitors like Lyft, another ride-hailing company. Uber's founder, Kalanick, has also had his character questioned in recent press reports.
Still, Uber has grown at a breakneck pace over the last five years; it has raised more than $1.5 billion in venture capital, and it is looking to raise at least another billion dollars from private investors in the future, according to people close to the company.