USA Today media columnist and lazy gadfly Michael Wolff has finally weighed in on BuzzFeed’s report about an Uber executive’s inflammatory comments at a private dinner attended by dozens of journalists. Wolff is quite unpleased with the minor role he played in embarrassing the $18 billion car-sharing company.
In case you haven’t heard: Uber’s senior VP for business, Emil Michael, divulged to BuzzFeed editor-in-chief Ben Smith that he wanted to unearth and publicize embarrassing facts about journalists who write critically about Uber—particularly Pando’s Sarah Lacy. This exchange took place at an off-the-record dinner organized by Uber to establish a more cordial relationship with the media. Smith attended as Wolff’s guest. The problem: Wolff forgot to tell Smith that the dinner, held at the Waverly Inn in Manhattan, was the off the record. Wolff writes:
I had understood that the Uber dinner, like other such media meet-and-greets—I’ve been to hundreds over the years—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—though surely not Uber’s.
But this is only the first of Wolff’s concerns. After noting that Smith is “wry and nuanced” in person yet “censorious and moralistic” in his writing, Wolff suggests that Smith failed to accurately report the evening’s events:
I do not know the Uber people, except as an often grateful consumer of their services. I do know, however, that it was a convivial evening, and that Smith’s portrait is at odds with the event. In fact, Smith’s article rather obviously misrepresents it. The article implies that the Michael remarks were to the dinner itself, heard by everyone, and unchallenged, instead of a conversation that no one else knew had occurred. Indeed, Smith, peculiarly, is the author of the BuzzFeed article that describes these remarks, but refers just to an unnamed BuzzFeed editor as attending the event—depersonalizing the encounter. Not one-on-one, but somehow more serious and official. Hence, more newslike, I suppose. Scarier.
Let’s note here that:
1. It is certainly true that, due to the way Smith wrote his piece, you can’t really tell how many people Michael was speaking to when he detailed his plans to investigate meddlesome journalists.
2. Smith should have made it much clearer that his host, as Wolff writes, “was at the other end of the table, far out of earshot of the Smith-Michael conversation, as was most everyone else.”
3. The dinner was hosted by Uber for the explicit purpose of repairing its relationship with the reporters, editors, and “influentials” who cover and comment on it.
4. Wolff never told Smith that the dinner was off the record.
The last two points are the most important ones. Uber hosted a bunch of journalists and opinion-makers for dinner, because the company’s relationship with the media remains quite tense. Then, at the same dinner, one of Uber’s top executives told Smith, who is both a journalist and an opinion-maker, that he wanted to dig up damaging information about one of the company’s most vociferous critics. So Smith wrote about it! Why wouldn’t he?
Here is Wolff:
Instead of labeling Michael’s remarks in such OMG, shock-shocked, clickbait fashion, Smith, or a more skillful writer, might have located them with greater precision on the broader spectrum of meaning and emotion. After all, how likely is it that a company planning to investigate reporters is going to divulge this to a reporter, even in an off-the-record conversation?
Let’s agree that Michael’s candor was uncommon, especially for a tech executive whom one would assume would know better, even after a couple of glasses of Beaujolais. But Michael also supplied a budget figure and the number of staffers he’d need to dig up embarrassing information about Lacy and other journalists. ($1 million, the project’s estimated payroll, is pittance to a company like Uber.) The fact that all of this was unlikely and primed to backfire—yet was described otherwise by a top executive of Uber—is precisely why Smith reported it.
We do hope, however, that Wolff and Smith’s friendship remains intact. Just look at how fruitful it’s been.
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