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Bangor Daily News lets blogger smear Uber with lies

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Bangor Daily News blogger Chris Shorr on Thursday published an outlandish and illogical attack against Uber, an innovative ride-sharing service based in San Francisco.

As my colleague Nathan Strout has written, Uber just launched in Portland. You can read more about that here. But Shorr’s outrageous smear of a company that will offer valuable employment to Mainers needs to be addressed.

Smearing Uber

In his post, “Why Uber ain’t so uber,” Shorr admits that he was prejudiced against Uber after hearing the company was expanding to Maine. So he did a quick “Google search” (singular, not plural) and – surprise! – his bias was confirmed. What followed was a number of unsourced, patently absurd, and irrational claims.

Let’s take them one by one.

“During the hiring campaign, Uber claims that drivers will make upwards of $20 an hour, then encourages people desperate for a living wage to take out leases on cars to become drivers.”

Ok, Uber tells potential drivers that there is a lucrative opportunity working as an independent contractor and states the requirements. Under the Uber arrangement, drivers can use their own vehicles. The only requirements Uber sets forth are for vehicles to have four doors, be from 2004 or newer, and be in excellent condition. Prospective contractors can make a calculated risk – under their own free will – to obtain the required equipment through a lease, on the off chance they don’t already have a car that’s less than ten years old.

Shorr’s implication is that Uber is somehow responsible for the decisions, good or ill, that people make. That’s like blaming the state of Maine for telling gamblers they can strike it rich on scratch tickets. Last time I checked, people are still responsible for the professional and financial decisions they make.

“After the initial buzz wears off and demand plummets, Uber cuts their rates, which can result in drivers making less than $1 (yes, one dollar) per hour.”

This is bizarre. It’s difficult to overstate just how wrong Shorr is.

For starters, Shorr never provides any evidence that demand for Uber’s services plummet. The truth is quite the contrary. Demand for taxi rides plummets, while Uber’s share of the market rises. That is why the company continues to grow and has secured billions of dollars in venture capital. You don’t grow internationally and attract that kind of investment when “demand plummets” for your service.

Secondly, Uber drivers are not paid by the hour. They are not paid $20 per hour and they are not paid $1 per hour. They work as much or as little as they please and receive 80 percent of every fare as payment. How much would they work if Uber was paying them one dollar an hour? Not at all. Which is precisely why Uber has never compensated employees at that absurdly low level, and why it is asinine for Shorr to suggest as much.

“Whether a driver leased a new car or just used one they already had, before long the wear and tear results in an expensive date at the auto body shop- and Uber sure as heck isn’t covering the bill.”

So Uber doesn’t cover the cost of car repairs. How does that differ from any other employer in Maine? If I have to drive an hour to work every day, I’m putting a lot of strain on my car. Is this somehow now my employer’s fault or responsibility? Of course not. Sure, taxi cab companies fix up the cabs, but only because the company – and not the driver – owns the car. A cab company repairing its vehicle is just good, self-interested business practice, not some benevolent gift to employees.

“The same can be said if a driver gets into an accident, regardless of the potential injuries or damages Uber will not be there to help cover the costs. Which means that in many cases the victim has no way of receiving compensation for medical costs, etc.”

Shorr apparently could not even be bothered to read Uber’s insurance policy from their Website. As Kaitlin Durkosh from Uber’s communications staff told me, “All ridesharing drivers are covered by a $1 million dollar insurance policy – which is over 3 times greater than what is required of taxi in Portland –  from the moment they accept a trip request through the completion of the ride. This insurance policy is primary to their personal insurance policy.” All business ventures involve some risk, but Shorr wants you to believe that Uber is somehow evil because the company and its contractors manage this risk differently than the taxi monopoly.

Apart from his bullet points, there are a few more problems with Shorr’s post: chiefly, logical consistency.

Shorr begins his irrational screed by bragging about the fact that he exposed a single taxi cab company owner for doing bad things. He does not extrapolate from that one bad apple in the taxi cab business to accuse the entire industry of being rotten. But that’s precisely what his illogical attack on Uber does. Shorr takes one instance of an Uber driver attacking a rider (a story he probably found with his one Google-search worth of research) and leaps twelve light-years ahead to the conclusion that all Uber drivers are just a breath away from raping and bludgeoning the innocent denizens of Portland.

On background checks, Shorr conducts the kind of research that would be frowned upon if a Portland middle schooler did it. He claims that Uber drivers can avoid background checks, but his only source is a post at the click-bait blog Gawker, which itself sources an anonymous post from some forum. As he partially admits, all Uber drivers undergo a background check. In fact, Uber’s back ground checks are actually just as rigorous, if not more rigorous than anything a Portland taxi driver is subjected to.

Could a clever criminal subvert Uber’s background check? Of course. But the same could be said of almost any background check, including Portland’s taxi driver application.  Shorr’s anonymous source claims that Uber’s background check requires only a name, a Social Security number, a driver’s license, and address, which makes it easy to fake.  Portland’s background check is even easier, as it doesn’t even require SSN. It would be just as likely – and as easy – for a Portland taxi driver to falsify his application.

One of the biggest problems with Shorr’s BDN blog post is its reliance on just one source — a source whose entire business is threatened by Uber. More than half of the BDN blog appears to have been copied-and-pasted from an email from 207 Taxi owner Craig Cobbett. Asking a taxi company owner to comment on Uber is like asking a printing press about the dangers of online reading.

Here’s the highlight from what Cobbett has to say, which Shorr helpfully blew up in a block quote with size 24 font: “What’s it gonna take for somebody to get raped or abducted before the city puts a stop to [Uber]? I fear for people’s safety, I really do.”

This just in: We already have laws against rape and abduction. Cobbett’s reasoning is like saying the city should put a stop to lawyers because this one lawyer was found guilty of possessing child pornography. I rather doubt he would be calling for more stringent regulations on taxi cabs if one of his drivers went postal.

Beyond Shorr’s irresponsible, inane and illogical attack on an innovative company that is offering work opportunities to Mainers, there’s another problem. This one belongs to Bangor Daily News and their management of bloggers.

BDN claims no responsibility for their bloggers, they claim not to edit or regulate the content. Yet the newspaper regularly intermixes blogs like Shorr’s with hard news and throw them on the front page. BDN thereby elevates irresponsible, inane and illogical attacks and thus becomes complicit in them.

The tragic part of it all is that BDN profits when bloggers draw traffic to their website with preposterous and irrational claims. It’s bad enough when they do this with political bloggers, but this blog actually has the potential to harm Mainers who are trying to make a living through an innovative ride-sharing company.

About Steve Robinson

Steve Robinson is the former editor of The Maine Wire and currently producer for the Howie Carr Show. Follow him on Twitter @Stevie_Rob or send him an email at Steve@HowieCarrShow.com.

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