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'How a censorious and moralistic blogger ruined my evening'

Damn tech press. Reporting and stuff. Jesus

By John Lettice, 21 Nov 2014

So you’re at an Uber-hosted dinner for New York media high-rollers, and the Uber exec - Emil Michael, senior VP for business - you’re talking to goes off on one, suggesting he could hire a million dollar team to dig up dirt on hostile journalists and their families. What do you do? This - apparently - depends on who you are.

It happened to Buzzfeed editor-in-chief Ben Smith a week ago, and he let the sucker have it with both barrels. Which is what we at The Register would do, although I’m not sure we’d ever get invited to such a gig even by accident. And I’m pretty sure Ben Smith will be fixing his own dinners a lot more in the future.

Michael Wolff on the other hand would likely have gone with something more sensitive and caring. Wolff is something of a lizard in the lounges of New York media high-rollers. He is the man who invited Smith to the dinner, and by his own admission has been to hundreds of these "media meet-and-greets" over the years. As likely have most of the other media leaders he names as being present - these are "Mort Zuckerman, owner of New York's Daily 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".

Wolff has many appreciative readers

This particular meet and greet, Wolff tells us, was part of a series of background meetings Uber organised with journalists and "influentials". "Everybody" (apparently) knows these are off the record and in Wolff’s eyes, Smith not knowing is the core of the problem. But there’s a bigger problem, as we’ll see.

We take it there won’t be any more of these briefings for a while, and that this was one aimed at influentials, but into which Wolff accidentally inserted a real journalist. As far as we know, nothing of interest has emerged from any backgrounders for journalists that took place before it. Are the journalists OK with a nice meal and access in exchange for a tacit off the record agreement? We hope not.

You can read the whole of Wolff’s screed for yourself (not forgetting the excellent comments), but if we cut to the chase it goes something like this: jumped up attack-dog blogger was so gauche he didn’t know the rules (i.e. these gigs are strictly off the record) and blew what was quite possible a "half-bottle of wine rant" out of all proportion. And, darn it, when "I contacted Smith and told him it seemed unfair that Uber suffers for my lapse" he ignored me and went ahead and published anyway. Wolff is also miffed that Smith didn’t "deal with the issue on the spot" and thinks it curious that "Smith made no mention of his conversation with Michael to me after the dinner."

There’s really so much wrong with that, and I really do not think that last paragraph in any way exaggerates Wolff’s not-exactly-an-apologia. Here is what a British reporter would have done, and if it takes a jumped-up blogger to do it in New York, well, shame on the rest of them.

Smith may or may not have known that such meetings are off the record, but the rules are if nobody tells you beforehand and some dolt spills his guts, you’ve got them, it’s on the record. Furthermore, if you’re the only actual person within earshot prepared to commit an act of journalism, it’s an exclusive. So you’re going to pad up to CEO Travis Kalanick afterwards and tell him one of his execs is shooting his mouth off, is out of line, maybe you’d better deal with it? Or you’re going to ask him about it in an open Q&A in front of the whole room? Right… That seems to be what Michael Wolff would have done. Goodbye story, goodbye exclusive, hello media facilitator. Any sensible journalist that gets that kind of gold keeps their mouth shut till they’re well clear, not least because exiting might otherwise be challenging. Making sure there’s a phone line between you and whoever’s shouting at you is common prudence.

Wolff would also have taken a worried call from Uber saying Smith was asking questions and hadn’t he told him it was off the record, and would then have called Smith asking him to kill the story. Because that’s what he did do. That was really very kind of him, considering he tells us he doesn’t know the Uber people apart from that one dinner. Kindness to strangers is one of his redeeming features.

Fleet Street's finest are unimpressed

In defence of Uber and its consultant Ian Osborne, the former David Cameron adviser who hosted the dinner, Smith seems to have been the only actual reporter there. The rest of them were high-level execs who would no doubt assume that the dinner was off the record. As would Wolff, whose recent career has been built on rubbing shoulders with these people, and who has negligible detectable reporting experience in his resume.

I know we said media media meet-and-greet, but...

But the off-the-record matter isn’t material, because even if Michael was just some tipsy bullshitter making stuff up, he was crossing a line when he proposed setting up a unit to dig dirt on the company’s enemies. And he was crossing the line further when he said Sarah Lacy - the only enemy journalist he specifically named - would be "personally responsible" for any woman who was sexually assaulted after following her advice and deleting Uber. Classy.

He did specify journalists here, of course, but if a company is capable of that, and is the kind of company that puts its customers’ movements live on a screen at a party, or one that thinks it’s fun to track customers’ one-night stands, then it’s also capable of getting heavy with all sorts of other enemies. So there’s a public interest justification for publishing, off the record or not.

Wolff clearly does not think Uber is capable of that, but that Michael is just a stray loose cannon. Presumably therefore he was also the sole loose cannon responsible for the two transgressions above, and various other minor incidents that other people might think spoke of a company pervaded by a juvenile, troublingly frat-boy culture.

So shall we do the accounting? On the one hand, we have the Wolff approach, quietly taking Kalanick aside, advising him to get his exec under control, and if Kalanick has any sense, Michael’s facetime with the press is in future heavily curtailed and supervised. Nothing to see here people, move along. Uber’s just a company with a "lack of PR finesse" and (cough) an expensive ex-Cameron spinner wining and dining influentials on its behalf. Uber - a company that Wolff hadn’t met prior to last week, don’t forget - is "at the forefront of a vast reordering of ground transportation", and is much misunderstood.

And all of those squalid clippings? Well, I suppose in Wolff’s world that’s just shit got up by the press, and you can understand why Uber might want to hire an attack team to… No, wait.

On the other hand, you could consider the squalid clippings as evidencing a systemic culture of uber-entitled lawbreaking, and that a damn good monstering would be in the public interest, with the added outside chance that it would freak Uber out sufficiently for it to reform. But don’t hold your breath on that one.

So yes, you get to hang out with the rich movers and shakers and maintain your access, or you blow it all up and have dinner on your own. We never say nice things about Buzzfeed, but just this once, Ben Smith, you’re OK. ®

Bootnote

Wolff appears to hanker for simpler times when journalists knew their place and allowed highly paid thought-leading columnists to hob-nob with the high and mighty untroubled by groundlings. "The technology and Internet press, earnest, righteous and toxic, exists on a far different basis than the traditional press, but is ever-more powerful because the traditional press follows gullibly and desperately behind it…" Ah, if only…

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