Nov 22, 2014 ยท 6 minutes

Uber's attempt to silence and smear journalists reporting on its business practices has moved into its next phase. Let's call this one "Operation Nothing To See Here."

If you recall, earlier this week Buzzfeed's Ben Smith reported that a senior Uber executive, Emil Michael, had boasted of a $1m plan to do "oppo" research on journalists who criticized the company. In particular, Buzzfeed named Pando's Sarah Lacy as the main target of the plan:

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. Shortly after the piece appeared, Emil Michael emailed Sarah Lacy to confirm the story and apologize unreservedly for his words:

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.
He also told Buzzfeed:
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. They were wrong no matter the circumstance and I regret them.
For his part, Uber CEO Travis Kalanick tweeted:
Emil's comments at the recent dinner party were terrible and do not represent the company ... His remarks showed a lack of leadership, a lack of humanity, and a departure from our values and ideals.
Note that at no point does either Michael or Kalanick so much as hint that Buzzfeed's quotes were incorrect or taken out of context. So what, then, are we to make of the post that popped up today -- five days later -- on the Huffington Post by one Nicole Campbell who says she was also a guest at the dinner? As chance would have it, Campbell happened to overhear the conversation between Smith and Michael and is keen to set the record straight:
I heard a mention of a Sarah Lacy and overheard Emil say that he felt terrible that by writing an article, Sarah had actually suggested that people choose less safe alternatives based on a charge of sexism that was really a personal attack on the CEO with no basis in fact. Emil then said that Sarah wouldn't like it if someone wrote false things about her or published an article that was factually wrong because we all have done things in our private lives we are not proud of.

There was no anti-feminist sentiment, no attacking families, no attacking children, no anger, no threats against anyone, no action plan. Nothing. It was clear to me that this was all a vague, civilized conversation. I am a woman and I am sensitive to any kind of talk like that.

There's a lot odd about that account. For one thing, it's the first time anyone has disputed that Michael said the words attributed to him, and later confirmed (and apologized for) by both Michael and Kalanick. It's also the first to characterize the conversation, which Campbell doesn't actually offer any quotes from, as "civilized." Remember Michael's apology: "I was at an event and was venting." It's almost as if Campbell didn't hear the conversation at all, or at least is misremembering its content and tone.

So who is Nicole Campbell? It's not until the last paragraph that she gives her bona fides:

I will admit that I am friends with Emil. We were both White House Fellows serving in different departments during the first year of the Obama administration where we both quit our jobs to take civil service positions to improve our country. I am upset that Ben sensationalized what happened at that dinner. His account was not fair and the coverage about this whole incident has been ridiculous.

Oh boy.

It doesn't take a White House Fellow to know what's going on here. After the company's apologies failed to calm the public outcry over Michael's threats, and with Senator Franken demanding answers, Uber has apparently decided on a new strategy: Find a friendly source to insist that the previously confirmed conversation never even happened, and in doing so smear the reporting of Buzzfeed's editor in chief.

Or, to put it another way, Uber's new strategy -- smearing journalists for telling the truth -- sounds a lot like the one that got them in this jam in the first place.

But Operation Nothing To See Here doesn't stop there. While attention was focussed on the HuffPost piece, Uber quietly deleted their controversial "Rides of Glory" post, where user data is used to predict (and congratulate) how many Uber riders have had one night stands.

P(l)oof(e)! Never existed! Nothing to see here!

As Uber's political spin doctor David Plouffe has no doubt assured Kalanick, people have short memories. By planting the seed that maybe, just maybe, Smith's reporting was inaccurate, the company is clearly hoping that Uber users and journalists will be so confused as to write the whole episode off as a case of "he said, she said."

Who knows what to believe?! Let's all just move on, huh?

Unfortunately, not for the first time, Kalanick and co have underestimated the intelligence of their audience. Rather than taking Campbell's words at face value, commenters and tweeters began asking for clarification: Does Michael now remember that he didn't say the words for which he's apologized? Has he retroactively decided that he was misquoted? And if so, does he retract his apology to Sarah Lacy? Is Travis Kalanick no longer sorry?

— Jessica Lessin (@Jessicalessin) November 21, 2014

Also, when Michael said that his words "do not reflect my actual views and have no relation to the company’s views or approach," was he referring to the words Ben Smith reported on Buzzfeed, or the ideas which his friend and former colleague Nicole Campbell later insisted he'd floated:

The last comment that I heard was when Emil hypothesized about creating a coalition for responsible journalism.

Is that what Emil Michael felt so embarrassed about suggesting and which doesn't bear any relation to his company's views or approach?

Or, if that's too many questions for Uber's top executives to answer in what's already a busy week, how about they just answer this one:

Precisely how fucking stupid do you think we are?