Vacation assignments for biz journalists
Your news organization has enticed you with a tempting boondoggle. Go to Davos, Switzerland, and report on the comings and goings of some of the biggest names in business, politics and entertainment.
Or, perhaps, the destination is Sun Valley, Idaho. Ah. A summer week in Sun Valley during the investment firm Allen & Co.’s annual get together.
The answer is a no brainer: you go. After all, this offer is too tempting to refuse. For starters, there’s the belief that you’ll have unfettered access to the biggest news makers in a secluded locale. And — let’s be real — there are the perks: hiking in the Sawtooth Mountains, mountain biking down the slopes in Sun Valley, skiing in Davos, and cocktail parties, concerts, and more. I should know. I’ve been to both (to be fair, the World Economic Forum I attended was in New York in early 2002 because of the security concerns that followed 9/11).
While I had a blast at both events, I’m not sure there was much if any news value in covering these events. In fact, I think that the news coverage provides the event planners with more free publicity than anything else. But that hasn’t stopped the breathless reporting. As I read the coverage this summer from Sun Valley, I smiled, and thought that the game still is being played to the benefit of the event planners and the lucky reporters.
One headline — actually it was a punctuation mark in the headline — that brought back the memories of covering these events. The Daily Mail, a British daily, previewed Allen & Co.’s summer gala in its the online headline (I don’t get the print edition): “Summer Camp for Moguls!”
What’s it really like to cover Allen & Co.’s mogul summer camp? Well, one year I stayed at the Lodge and in a condo another year. My neighbors were Haim Saban, Buzz Aldrin (he lives there, wasn’t attending the conference. I had drinks in the lobby bar at the same time that Rupert Murdoch and Paul Allen were nursing beverages. I saw Michael Dell have a picnic lunch with his kids. I saw Oprah chatting up Bill Gates for a long time. I took the chair lift up Sun Valley ski resort and rode a mountain bike down. I found an awesome natural hot springs not too far from where Ernest Hemingway took his life. I ate and drank well.
Sure I filed stories. But they weren’t really worth much. Most of Sun Valley was cordoned off as “private.” Lots of ropes, closed doors and security guards. Me and my fellow reporters would hang around, excluded from the presentations, and wait for some luminary to gently break Herb Allen’s dictum of keeping the meetings secret. Here and there, we’d get a crumb. John Malone would tell us a little something about a presentation. Nothing controversial, but it was uttered by an A name quoting another A name. Phil Knight would say the bare minimum – and we’d get a headline.
The meetings weren’t closed to all the press. Some celebrity journalists — Ken Auletta, Tom Friedman, Anderson Cooper, among them — sat in the audience or moderated a panel and honored the code of silence. Of course, my then boss Mike Bloomberg was in attendance as was Rupert and other media barons who owned the television networks, magazines and newspapers that all of us on the other side of the ropes worked for.
The story line was that SOMETHING big was happening, or might happen, and it happens here. After all, Disney’s Michael Eisner and Capital Cities/ABC’s Tom Murphy were in Sun Valley when they cooked up their deal to merge their companies. But that was 1995.
Since then, not much has happened. And Sun Valley has morphed into a business version of Cannes. And the reporters are playing right into. And Allen & Co. is benefitting, grabbing countless breathless headlines touting the importance of the conference, punctuated, even if occasionally, by an exclamation point!
Here’s my thought: what if the media decided not to cover it? What if all the reporters and film crews just didn’t show. That would deflate the self-importance that permeates Sun Valley.
Of course that would also ruin the summer vacation for some journalists!
Levy is a partner in 30 Point Strategies and a former Loeb Award winner as a business journalist for Bloomberg News