Here’s the good news about this week’s Uber fiasco: billion dollar corporations actually care what journalists say about them.
As for the bad news, there’s plenty of it. For one, it turns out that personal taxi company Uber employees track the location of cars and customers. This revelation came up during reports about how an Uber senior executive, Emil Michael, suggested hiring a team to dig up dirt on critics of Uber to combat recent stories about the company’s sexist corporate culture. He outlined his plan at a New York dinner among high-profile company such as actor Ed Norton and publisher Ariana Huffington. It involved spending “a million dollars” to hire four opposition researchers and four journalists to dig into the personal lives and families of reporters like PandoDaily editor-in-chief Sarah Lacy.
Unfortunately for Uber, an unnamed BuzzFeed editor was invited to the dinner. And Uber failed to mention the dinner should be considered off the record. Presto, more bad press for Uber.
Anything is possible… even digging up dirt on journalists.
The company is now investigating its top New York executive for tracking a Buzzfeed reporter without her permission, but these are far from the first problems with Uber’s culture. Uber’s “bad-boy” CEO Travis Kalanick has been known for disregarding regulations when it comes to the success of his company. He flouted Taxi & Limousine Commission regulations in New York until the company was finally forced to discontinue taxi service in the city, to which he threw an angsty teenager-worthy fit. In Boston and D.C., he pushed through city resistance by crowdsourcing public support. The company even hired campaign managers to aid in their fight against the big, bad preexisting taxi industry. He’s hired teams to poach drivers from competitors like Lyft, complete with burner phones and credit cards. Uber is facing outrage over surge pricing, where rates can more than quadruple during peak hours. And not long after boasting that Uber’s drivers can make up to $90,000 annually, Kalanick announced excitedly that self-driven cars (and with them, a much more efficient minimization of costs, of course) are in Uber’s future. Drivers won’t be losing quite the income the company boasts, however. The number of weekly hours required to meet that sum is upwards of 100.
Even more disturbing than cutthroat business tactics and a disregard for the law is the culture of misogyny promoted in Uber. Especially by Kalanick himself, who has called the company “boober” because his position has been so successful at getting him laid. Or let’s look at the time that, as part of a promotion, Uber’s Lyon office partnered with an app featuring lingerie-clad models called “Avions de Chasse.” The promotion promised one of these “hot chicks” as your driver for a glorious 20 minutes. An Uber blog post announced, “Who said women couldn’t drive?” (it was then quickly removed, but never addressed). Or the time a driver was charged with “kidnap for the purpose of sexual assault” after bringing a drunk female passenger to a motel room for the night. Or the time a driver told this journalist she had “fantastic tits.”
As Sarah Lacy pointed out, a culture of misogyny at most gigantic corporations is one thing. A culture of misogyny in a gigantic corporation that leaves its employees responsible for ferrying around women at all hours of the day and night rises to the level of dangerous douchebaggery. Uber has created a culture that condones a lack of respect and safety for female drivers and passengers, a culture that makes it all the more likely that a driver will think he can get away with taking a drunk female passenger to a motel for the night. Of course, traditional cab drivers can harass people, too. But Uber is a software company that simply connects drivers with riders and arranges the rides through their app. The accountability that exist for cabbies through licensing and training does not exist for Uber. And this lack of regulation poses, and has already proven to be, a serious threat to safety, specifically the safety of women.
This is where journalism comes in. Journalists like Sarah Lacy have worked to expose Uber’s arrogance, misogyny, and disregard for safety, holding Uber accountable for the things its PR team would rather sweep under the rug—or, more fittingly, delete from its history. Emil Michael’s threat of a smear campaign that aims for the target’s family and personal life is undoubtedly terrifying, but also a resounding pat on the back for journalists everywhere who call out big corporations and corrupt CEOs. Exposing the truth has power, and Uber’s attempt at a threat is proof that bad press by good reporters gets under the skin of the people in charge.
Read more Bitch Douchebag Decrees, including a rant against Hobby Lobby.
Sarah Hansell is a Portland, OR freelancer and self-proclaimed book nerd. You can follow her @sjhansell.