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Uber Executive Lashes Out At Journalists After Negative Publicity


An executive of the car service Uber has apologized for suggesting that his company should dig up dirt on journalists. Uber's Senior Vice President Emil Michael floated the idea at an informal dinner as a way to counter what he considers negative coverage of the ridesharing firm. Uber is a hit with customers, but it's clashed with competitors, regulators and some journalists. NPR's Laura Sydell joins us now to talk about this latest Uber flap. And, Laura, explain where Emil Michael made these comments and what he said.

LAURA SYDELL, BYLINE: So he was at a dinner in New York last week for some very high-level people. And there were some invited journalists, including a reporter from BuzzFeed, which is an online news site that specializes in stories that have a kind of gossipy, viral edge. BuzzFeed reported that over dinner Michael said he wanted to hire a team to investigate journalists, and he reportedly said they would look into journalist's personal lives, their families and give the media a taste of its own medicine.

BLOCK: And what are the critical stories that Uber, apparently, is so concerned about?

SYDELL: So, Uber's been the target of a lot of negative publicity. Most recently, the founder and chief of an online site called pando.com, Sarah Lacy, called the company out and called them misogynist after some ads in France which basically said, hey, try Uber. We have hot chicks driving our cars, and it had some pictures of scantily clad female drivers of Uber cars. That ended. Also Uber's been fighting taxi regulators in cities across the country. It's been called out for its surge-pricing, which has raised ride fares sometimes to hundreds of dollars at a moment when people need it the most, say, in the middle of a big rainstorm.

BLOCK: But it has become a very successful company, right?

SYDELL: Very. People like it. They like the convenience, and it has a valuation now of about $18 billion.

BLOCK: Uber wouldn't be the first company that would havbe been tempted to dig up dirt on journalists whose coverage they don't like. With tech companies, they've got ready access to a lot of personal information.

SYDELL: Yes. There have been cases in the past, some relatively recently. Microsoft admitted that it had read journalists' Hotmail accounts in an attempt to find an internal leak on a story. HP was investigated because it hired private investigators to use false identities to access social security numbers and other information on HP board members, employees and journalists. But what's troubling in some ways, in the bigger picture, is that these companies have a lot of information about us. If you use Uber, it knows a lot about where you go and when. Google and Yahoo make no bones about the fact that they're reading your e-mails, ostensibly to give you more targeted ads, but it could be used for other things. You have GPS on your phone. You use Google Maps. It knows where you go. And I think, you know, this gets troubling in terms of what companies can do with it and also the revelations of Edward Snowden, which showed the government trying to tap into all this information. So it's important to remember these companies have a lot of information about us.

BLOCK: Let's go back to Uber, Laura. How has the company responded to this latest flap?

SYDELL: Uber says it will not spy on journalists and that this executive was just speculating and not speaking about real plans that the company has.

BLOCK: OK. NPR's Laura Sydell. Laura, thanks so much.

SYDELL: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Laura Sydell fell in love with the intimate storytelling qualities of radio, which combined her passion for theatre and writing with her addiction to news. Over her career she has covered politics, arts, media, religion, and entrepreneurship. Currently Sydell is the Digital Culture Correspondent for NPR's All Things Considered, Morning Edition, Weekend Edition, and NPR.org.
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