A rival of Uber says the company is running a NSA (National Security Agency) operation, while one of the journalists near the center of one of Uber’s PR fiascos says it might have been the alcohol talking when a top Uber executive told a journalist his company wanted to engage in black operation smear tactics against other journalists.


“These people run their own NSA (National Security Agency),” said Rakesh Mathur, Chief Executive Officer of Flywheel, according to a CNBC report. “They know where people are and are not afraid to use the information which is appalling.”

Uber’s smaller competitor claims to have 80% of the San Francisco market

Flywheel is a much smaller competitor of Uber that partners with existing taxi drivers rather than hiring new drivers. The firm operates in San Francisco, Los Angeles and Seattle that claims to have 80 percent of the San Francisco market. The firm launched in 2013 and on Thursday raised $12 million in funding and quickly appointed silicon Valley entrepreneur Mathur its chief executive officer. Mathur wasted no time in entering the Uber fray at the same time journalist Michael Wolf appeared to try and calm the situation.

It was USA Today columnist Wolf who invited BuzzFeed editor Ben Smith to what was an off the record press dinner. Wolf, however, forget to tell Smith about that little “off the record” detail, and Smith promptly reported his conversation with an Uber executive who detailed a desire to intimidate and smear the reputations of journalists.

Wolf describes the somewhat exclusive dinner setting:

In addition to Uber’s CEO, Travis Kalanick, among the 25 or so guests were the actor Ed Norton, a friend of Kalanick, and his wife, film producer Shauna Robertson; Mort Zuckerman, owner of New York’sDaily News; Clear Channel CEO Bob Pittman; Huffington Post chief Arianna Huffington, New Republic owner Chris Hughes; and an executive at Ronald Perelman’s company, Chris Taylor. It was a long table, probably 40 feet or more, and Smith was seated at the far end with Emil Michael, Uber’s senior vice president for business. I was at the other end of the table, far out of earshot of the Smith-Michael conversation, as was most everyone else.

Uber’s bad press

Smith had engaged Michael in a conversation regarding Uber’s bad press, at which point he went on a rant against journalists in general and Sarah Lacy, the editor and founder of PandoDaily, in particular, suggesting that Uber use a $1 million budget to dig up dirt on uncooperative journalists and target them in a smear campaign.

Wolf speculates it might have been the wine talking, but also said he was at the other end of the table and didn’t hear the conversation:

Was Michael stating Uber policy, or was this a half-bottle of wine rant? And do you want to acknowledge a difference?

I’ve been to several off the record press dinners and rarely do those hosting the dinners drink in excess, if at all. This apparent lack of discipline or the absurd notion of a corporate executive actually telling other journalists they wanted to conduct a smear campaign wasn’t an issue, as Wolf contests with how Smith depicted the dinner and encounter itself:

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.

Then Wolf challenges Smith directly:

In person Smith is wry and nuanced. But as a writer, he mostly has one setting. His background is as a gotcha political blogger, and he has matured into a stern, official-sounding voice, censorious and moralistic.

It appears as though Wolf thinks that reporting on a potential plan to target journalists is “moralistic,” and then he attacks the primary media outlets involved:

BuzzFeed itself — a financial play as much as Uber is — has key investors who are investors in Uber’s main competitor, Lyft. Those investors are, too, investors inPandoDaily. Does this have any bearing at all on the cost of tea in China? I don’t know. But I know that little in this world is what it seems.