Uber investor Ashton Kutcher is defending Uber from comments that one of its executives made on Friday, in which the exec casually threatened to launch a smear campaign against a specific journalist who had written negatively about the company. In a series of tweets, Kutcher questioned whether Uber business exec Emil Michael's suggestion that the company hire researchers to dig up dirt on journalists was really a bad idea. "What is so wrong about digging up dirt on shady journalist?" Kutcher tweeted, without noting what was "shady" about the journalist in question.
"Questioning the source needs to happen... Always!"
Kutcher's argument was that everyone is now a public figure thanks to the internet. In particular, he writes that journalists are culpable because some print "half truths as facts" and then leave their subjects to defend themselves as a story spans the globe. "Questioning the source needs to happen... Always!" he writes. Kutcher also noted that he is speaking for himself and not on behalf of Uber.
While Kutcher's point about questioning sources is a fine one, he seems to ignore the fact that Uber's executive is reported to have made a specific threat against one journalist, PandoDaily editor-in-chief Sarah Lacy. And that threat was not made because she was acting "shady," as he writes, but for writing negatively about what she calls Uber's "asshole culture." Kutcher eventually concedes that he's somewhat off the mark, though it's not totally clear where the change of heart comes from. "U r all right and I'm on the wrong side of this ultimately," Kutcher writes. "I just wish journalists were held to the same standards as public figures."
As PandoDaily editor Paul Carr points out, Kutcher's tweets still serve to support Uber even in the face of his changing course. "Of course [Kutcher] backed down, but he did his celeb investor job for Uber — planted the idea that Sarah is 'shady' without facts," he writes on Twitter. It's also a case of Uber wildly missing the point. Lacy, or any other journalist, isn't what Uber should be fighting back against — its target should be the internal culture that has led to all of the bad decisions that keep bringing it negative press.
Uber has tried to distance itself from Michael's comments, but there still remains the broader issue around how it might be able to get dirt on journalists. Though Michael had reportedly suggested hiring a team of Uber's own researchers,BuzzFeed has continued to point out that Uber has access to everyone's travel logs, which many people at the company are said to have access to. That's potentially a major issue, as travel logs can be incredibly revealing in a number of ways. Uber has said that it can only access this data for "legitimate business purposes," but multiple claims suggest that it's tapped into this for less than legitimate reasons.
Disclosure: Ashton Kutcher is an advisor to Vox Media, The Verge's parent company.