Uber Should Drive Journalists to Accountability

Good for Uber for being transparent about investigating journalists. Bad for Uber for buckling to public relations pressure and renouncing an executive’s statements about the practice. Every company tracks journalists, or bloggers, covering it—to which I can attest from experience. PR pros and I have, in the past, discussed dossiers about me, because some put our relationship first. They feel dirty for keeping records and need to confess.

The ride-sharing startup would do nothing unusual by collecting the data, and there is good reason to want to use it. My profession is in a state of crisis. Sloppy sourcing practices spread rumors across the vast Internet landscape like environmental protestors throwing feces on corporate executives. Shit is shit, whether or not literal, and it all stinks. If the Fourth and Fifth Estates can’t be accountable for themselves—and they most certainly are not—victims of irresponsible reporting should protect their interests.

Uber’s apparent aggressive desire to hold journalists, or at leas one, accountable isn’t surprising. The natural relationship between companies and reporters is contentious. The responsible news gatherer seeks to provide accurate information to his or her audience, while the news subject wants to protect its image/brand—and for public companies, share price and investor confidence. The highest form of journalism protects the public interest, while the lowest form slings unsubstantiated rumors for self-interest (Think any blog or news site pandering to the Google free economy).

The lowest form of journalism stinks up the Internet and should concern every company, individual, organization, or politician who is a news subject. In my book Responsible Reporting: Field Guide for Bloggers, Journalists, and Other Online News Gathers, I call audience trust the greatest ethic for anyone in my profession. But if you’d like something succinct and free to read, click through to any of these posts:

Uber Dubber
There is something cruelly ironic about Uber’s news media dress-down this week. Executive Emil Michael made comments that he reportedly thought were off-the-record, but were nevertheless publicly reported. Whether the journalist dinner was off-the-record, or such fact was never communicated to the BuzzFeed editor in attendance, is disputed. Ben Smith reports about the controversial content:

Over dinner, [Michael] 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 at no point suggested that Uber has actually hired opposition researchers, or that it plans to. He cast it as something that would make sense, that the company would be justified in doing.

BuzzFeed is trying to legitimize as a news site after years of bottom-feeding with posts like these (live on the site today): “27 Last-Minute Thanksgiving Tips For The Laziest Host Of All Time“; “What Your Cat Does When You’re Not At Home“; and “Can You Make It Through This Post Without Having To Pee?” The Uber story is a huge get—picked up by blogs and news sites seemingly everywhere this week. Whoa, a legitimate news story about the news media! How convenient the BuzzFeed editor didn’t know the not-for-attribution context or that, given the topic, outside news organizations would be unlikely to seriously question whether or not BuzzFeed acted irresponsibly.

For sure, if Emil Michael was told the forum was off-the-record and he spoke candidly with such understanding, Uber executives have one hell of an internal case for creating that team to investigate the investigators and doing so hold them accountable.

If you think that lots of companies don’t keep dossiers on journalists, let me firmly tell you otherwise. What they do with the information and how far they might realistically exploit it is the question. But it doesn’t take a crack investigative team to attack a reporter’s credibility. Back-room chatter from paid PR professionals and social media sharers, including story commenters, can be very effective, cost lots less, and minimize legal risks regarding privacy rights.

Kutcher Caves
The online commentary around this topic is fascinating reading, particularly watching how some public figures siding with Uber back down, too, in response to blogger and journalist pressure. Among them: Ashton Kutcher, who, coincidentally—or not—is reportedly an Uber investor. Over at TechCrunch, John Biggs writes “Yes, Ashton, There Are Journalists” to which I respond: “Ashton, everyone is a journalist now, and that’s the problem”.

John recounts Ashton’s November 19 twitter debate that started supporting Uber until bowing before bullies: “U r all right and I’m on the wrong side of this ultimately. I just wish journalists were held to the same standards as public figures”.

Actually Ashton is on the right side and shows so in a blog post:

I believe that journalism is a core component of our democracy. I do not think journalists should be bullied, but I do think that with the vast shift of media dynamics that has taken place since the birth of social media we need to consider and revisit the boundaries of what we believe to be ethical in news gathering. In a world where everyone has a camera, everyone has a recorder, everyone has a publishing platform, who is a journalist and who is not? What’s on the record and what’s off? Maybe we should think about what freedom of the press really is, and what constitutes an invasion of privacy, hearsay, or outright slander?

Why the hell not give them what they put out? Many news gatherers are bullies. They stand on bully pulpits of rumor, insinuation, and accusation that are anonymously sourced or source someone else’s report that is anonymously sourced. All the while, they are accountable to no one. What’s responsible about that?

Three of Ashton’s tweets in the thread that are spot on:

Questioning the source needs to happen…Always!”

Rumors span the globe before anyone has an opportunity to defend themselves”.

So as long as journalist are interested and willing to print half-truths as facts…Yes we should question the source”.

Yes. Yes. Yes.

Without question news gatherers should be held accountable, but, largely, editors and publishers aren’t fulfilling their responsibilities. If journalists dig dirt, shouldn’t they expect digback from some subjects?

A responsible journalist should have nothing for Uber—or any other news subject—to dig, so let them. But if the journalist is hiding something, say, investment in a company he or she covers or some other conflicted relationship, someone should expose it. How ironic, if the Ubers of the world dig up dirty journalists and doing so serve the public interest the reporters are meant to.

If you are a responsible reporter, your credibility will be attacked by your subjects. I’ve been there many times. Character assassination is a price you pay to do the job well. But if irresponsible, payback is a bitch, and you deserve it.

The Who Question
Ashton’s tweets about sourcing get to the point often lost in the journalist’s pursuit of of news, or too often, rumors. Any story that sources another, without attempt to independently confirm, jeopardizes the trust between the writer and his or her audience. Such stories also can cause meaningful harm to companies, organizations, ordinary citizens, politicians, or public figures.

Potential harm raises the bar higher for reporting rightly the first time, rather than rushing rumors that later prove to be false. Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics states “Minimize Harm” (click through the link for why and how). That guideline is worthwhile remembering, if a news gatherer. Rumors can inflict irreparable harm to brand awareness, reputations, and to a public company’s financial stability. You goddam better be right, or you deserve a fight from startups like Uber.

If a news gatherer doesn’t know what’s true, he or she shouldn’t report it. Reporters may think they know what’s true, and that’s okay if based on original sourcing, with understanding what’s true may change and that the record should be corrected as facts unfold. Editors must demand accountable sourcing. Based on the large number of crazy rumor stories, particularly in the tech sector, the majority demand nothing.

But not all news gatherers are paid professionals accountable to editors. In June 2009 analysis “Iran and the Internet Democracy“, I explained:

Iranian protests are capturing the world’s attention in part because of fairly new tools that make it easy for most anyone to be a broadcaster, a real-time journalist. These tools punctuate change sweeping through the news industry and destabilizing others…As people take their masses of content to the Web, news monopolies of power begin to crumble.

Ashton is right to ask: “In a world where everyone has a camera, everyone has a recorder, everyone has a publishing platform, who is a journalist and who is not?” When I posted in June 2009, social networks Facebook or Twitter had only been open to the public for about three years—YouTube since November 2005. In the half-a-decade since posting the analysis, what was new then is commonplace now. Smartphones and social networks enable anyone to be, even if briefly, a news gatherer. Meanwhile, major news organizations encourage and legitimize citizen journalism. Example: CNN’s iReport.

The “who” question, and accountability around it, is no small ethical matter. If celebrities like Ashton Kutcher or companies like Uber worry about hostile and unaccountable professionals, how much more troublesome are amateurs? To be clear: I would oppose any investigation of private citizens as put forth by the Uber exec. Journalists are fairer game because of established professional ethics, their training, the responsibility they bear, and their visibility.

Public Figures?
John Biggs dances all around Uber in one of the better commentaries. Do read it all, for there are many nuances no excerpt or summation can rightly capture. But pulling one: “Here’s why journalists shouldn’t be tailed, Ashton: if they are doing their jobs correctly then they shouldn’t be considered public figures but tellers of truth”. Where’s my Jeopardy Buzzer? Not being a public figure is no exemption from being accountable to report responsibly. Get a life!

Except: Many journalists are, by my definition, public figures. Think about why reporters are elevated to star status. That’s the point of building brand around individual writers rather than the media platforms to which they contribute. People identify with people.

John makes a valuable observation that I pull somewhat out of context:

The Economist, for example, doesn’t carry bylines because it cleaves to an old writ that says that the organ, not the writer, is the focus. This does little for the journalist’s ego but it does help prevent some of the abuses we see today, including dedication to the pageview as a measure of worth and the rise of the celebrity commentator in every industry. Gawker, you’ll recall, started without bylines and I was one of the employees who railed against that. I was an idiot.

I won’t dispute that. 😉 But the point is this: Bylines are all about building identity and recognition around the reporters. I contend some of them are as much public figures as the people they report about.

Technically, public figure is a term related to legal liability, such as defamation of character, but means more to many people.

From the Legal Dictionary:

In the law of defamation (libel and slander), a personage of great public interest or familiarity like a government official, politician, celebrity, business leader, movie star, or sports hero. Incorrect harmful statements published about a public figure cannot be the basis of a lawsuit for defamation unless there is proof that the writer or publisher intentionally defamed the person with malice (hate).

Citing Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of Law, FindLaw defines public figure as: “An individual or entity that has acquired fame or notoriety or has participated in a particular public controversy”. Related is limited-purpose public figure, which FindLaw defines, citing same source: “A person who voluntarily and prominently participates in a public controversy for the purpose of influencing its outcome”.

Lacy’s Revenge
That brings me to PandoDaily’s Sarah Lacy, who is the other star of this drama and unexpected benefactor by being the main target of Emil Michael’s comments. According to Ben Smith: “Uber’s dirt-diggers, Michael said, could expose Lacy. They could, in particular, prove a particular and very specific claim about her personal life”.

Meaning no defense of Uber or to in male-sexist fashion shift blame onto the woman, Sarah plays an active role in this whole affair rather than just passive observer. She is on record aggressively attacking the company over allegations that drivers mistreated, or even sexually abused, female passengers. Is she being a journalist, or activist for women’s rights? Because the one isn’t necessarily synonymous with the other. Meanwhile her status as a well-known reporter in Silicon Valley and creator of a startup that in tangential manner competes with Uber for venture-capitalist dollars is disconcerting.

With respect to the first, she sounds like an activist seeking vengeance rather than a journalist looking to uncover truth. Regarding the other, if Pando Daily and Uber draw from the same pool of VC funds, there is perceived, if not actual, conflict of interest. I see the advocate’s role, which at the least makes her a limited-purpose public figure, as bigger. That said, one of PandoDaily’s backers invests is an Uber competitor. From that perspective, the company could conceivably view her as a competitor to be handled.

Something else: Because of BuzzFeed’s Uber revelations, suddenly Sarah is the victim here, and she makes a compelling one this week. How her star shines from the darkness falling on Uber! Lane Wood, Humin’s chief marketing officer, better expresses the implications in Medium post “Here ego again“. He writes:

Seeing her on Bloomberg smiling while talking about her kids being in danger makes me feel like I’m watching an episode of The Mentalist. She’s saying she’s terrified, but at the same time she seems to be enjoying this newfound attention. I can’t know her intentions, but the reality is, this story helps her personal profile and it boosts readership for her company, PandoDaily. Sarah’s a media master. She’s winning, even as she plays the part of a victim. And that duality bugs me.

Bugs me, too. Cue the Bloomberg video below to the 3:00 mark and listen for about 30 seconds first muted and watch her facial expressions. With a big smile she talks about being afraid. Her manner doesn’t reconcile with her words.

In a CNN interview, Laurie Segall asks Sarah Lacy why she is so critical of the ride-sharing startup. “No one really holds this company accountable”. Right, but who holds her accountable? Or any other news gatherer? Who assesses how she benefits at Uber’s expense? Writing for the New York Times, Leslie Kaufman makes admirable effort in commentary: “Reaction to Uber Tactics Highlights Tech Journalists’ Fine Line Between Critic and Booster“.

In the CNN clip, Sarah accuses Uber of misogyny and “taking people out who disagree with them. I think this is a scary issue for women, and I think it’s a scary issue for journalists”. You want to know what’s scary for journalists? Reporting from war zones, where life and limb are risked. Blogging from your cozy domicile in pretty Silicon Valley is scary how? If you’re frightened that easily or complain about attacks against your credibility (which Sarah Lacy does), journalism perhaps isn’t the right profession. Those attacks are part of the job and even a sign that maybe, just maybe, you do it well.

Businesses play rough with one another and apply the same tactics to journalists. Suck it up. That’s because of the job, not sexism, and it’s a topic separate from alleged abuses of Uber female passengers.

In diatribe “The moment I learned just how far Uber will go to silence journalists and attack women“, Sarah writes for PandoDaily:

In that moment outside an Indian restaurant in London, I stood numb listening to Smith asking me if I had a comment, and I thought of my kids…I had two thoughts. The first was: What possible comment could I give Smith to sum up the terror I felt over an attack at my family? And then this: Please, God, let this be how bad it gets.

Strange how nowhere in the news reports about Emil Michael’s comments is there implicit or overt threat against Sarah Lacy or her family. Playing the drama queen, being the victim advocating for victims, ties together two unrelated things, giving power to both. Watch the CNN clip above. Listen to her tone. Does she sound like a journalist to you, or an activist?

More significantly, in both interviews, she mischaracterizes the facts, such as, when discussing opposition research: “That’s going through trash, that’s following my kids, that’s vans parked outside my house”. But there is nothing in the record revealed so far remotely suggesting Uber planned to do any of this. If she makes statements about the company that are unsubstantiated, or worse false, she breaches the boundaries of responsible journalism.

She describes Ben Smith’s report as courageous and that he “wrote a story under intense intimidation”, when others wouldn’t, including Ariana Huffington and Michael Wolff, who also attended the diner. The Bloomberg reporter should ask why they didn’t, rather than give Sarah Lacy platform to rant.

Strange how the other irony here is Sarah Lacy’s profile rising, which is probably opposite Uber executives’ desire, particularly if there was ever any real plan to squash her as an opponent. If she wants something to really be afraid about: Crazy, troll commenters probably pose more threat to her or her family than any Silicon Valley startup.

Broken Trust
The moral: These days don’t trust news gatherers. With the exception of a shrinking number of old media organizations, there isn’t enough credible accountability. In the new media world, “he said, she said” is the standard for sourcing and with it tremendous wiggle room—how’s Jupiter as measure—regarding accuracy and, of course, accountability.

BuzzFeed’s role reporting the Uber exec’s comments, and dispute over whether they were off-the-record, really disturbs me. Who’s accountable for that? Meanwhile, Sarah Lacy is activist and victim—the news story—not its reporter. That is not the role any journalist should play.

Michael Wolff, who invited BuzzFeed’s editor-in-chief to the dinner, offers the context missing from Sarah’s platform and ignored by Bloomberg, which in more than 9 minutes of video presents her and no other participant in this drama. Michael explains that the dinner “was off the record. I neglected, however, to specifically tell Smith this. And while I might have fairly assumed Smith knew the context, this was my oversight…he didn’t ask, and likely, didn’t want to know”.

He continues:

The dinner was on Friday. On Monday, the Uber hosts called me to say they were getting questions from Smith, and hadn’t I told him this was off the record. I contacted Smith and told him it seemed unfair that Uber suffers for my lapse…Was Michael stating Uber policy, or was this a half-bottle of wine rant? And do you want to acknowledge a difference?

I take away from Michael Wolff’s account gotcha journalism at work, in that Ben Smith chose not to get comment from Uber’s CEO, who was present, waiting until later. Had he done so, there might have been no story at all, for 1) There would be on-site affirmation all discussions were off-the-record, and 2) The chief executive could have refuted the statements as wishful banter.

I make no moral judgement about the Uber exec’s comments. I wasn’t present at the meeting. The BuzzFeed story summarizes his comments more than quotes them, so their context is ambiguous at best. Then there is my concern that Emil Michael spoke freely and openly with expectation the discussion was off-the-record. How an executive expresses frustration to journalists about a peer and ways the company might respond is crucial context. It’s like thinking out loud and gauging response.

So I am not qualified as second-hand observer to judge Uber. My peers are something else. I am qualified, justified, and obligated to respond and in doing so raise concerns about reporters’ responsibilities. As I often say, the first question news gatherers should ask about anything is “Who benefits?” BuzzFeed seeking to legitimize as a real news site and Sarah Lacy as rising star activist/victim/PandoDaily editor-in-chief. Then there is something BuzzFeed and PandoDaily share in common: Venture Capitalists backing Uber competitor Lyft.

Lane Wood asks the right question: “Tech journalism should play a major and important role in keeping fast-growing companies and their execs honest. But who keeps the storytellers honest when their readership rewards drama?”

If not you, then no one.

Photo Credit: F Mira