Self-Loathing in Sun Valley

The billionaires and millionaires who make their fortunes in media, entertainment and tech wrapped up Saturday at Allen & Co.s 29th annual media conference in Sun Valley.  And for another year, they succeeded largely in avoiding . . . the media.

It was a four-day powerfest of the rich, the famous and those who are both: Oprah Winfrey, Warren Buffett, Bill Gates, Barry Diller, wonderpup Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, Disneys Robert Iger, Googles Eric Schmidt, Jeff Bezos of Amazon, actress Selma Hayak and, for some inexplicable reason, the profound and rotund governor of New Jersey, Chris Christie.

Clad in unflattering zipper vests, golf shirts and a sea of khaki, they attended a scant sessions on the blindingly obvious (did you know Mexico has a big drug-wars problem? That China is on the rise?). Their real purpose: golf, tennis, flyfishing and, most important of all, schmoozing (and impressing one another).  Their bucolic backdrop: a posh resort nestled between babbling brooks and a panorama of Idaho mountains still snow-capped in summer.

How lovely.  And where were we, the hordes of journalists trying to cover this meeting of the rich & famous?  Quite literally, on the wrong side of the velvet rope.

For the media it is an insulting oddity, and for others its kind of funny: Though many here make crillions of dollars in the media business, as does host Allen & Co. itself, in Sun Valley the media are shunned like lepers, quarantined from all sessions and gatherings and forbidden from freely roaming, photographing and reporting.

And yet, rather than simply shut down the entire resort to outsiders and seal off the press, Allen & Co. sets up Sun Valley as one big media tease, arranging and wrangling its lineup of luminaries as if they were rare beasts on display for a media safari.  The firm kind of wants the media coverage, but it doesnt.

Believe me, it doesnt, says one longtime attendee.

Camera crews are tolerated at the main entrance, where the quarry must pass. Two cars block a circular drive as if we were waiting for Michael Corleone in The Godfather.  On the grounds, any view of the outdoor lunch patio is obscured by a platoon of strategically placed planters bearing 5-foot-tall scotch pines. Christmas in July!  Shoot past the foliage, and you risk banishment.

A platoon of security guards, alternately buff or buoyantly beer-bellied, stood watch to berate us whenever someone got out of line. On Day Two (Thursday), a morbidly obese crewcut yelled at us and threatened expulsion (though the resort is open to the public).  Drunk with power, he did this twice within 30 minutes, setting off a jump-back response from a reporter staying on the grounds.

When a scribe for The New York Times buttonholed Warren Buffett, an uninvited sentry stationed himself nearby and monitored every word, braced for intervention.  At one point I asked the guards whether they were packing Tasers.  I just wanna be there to get the shot when Dennis gets arrested, one lensman wisecracked.

As the elites emerge from sessions, most of them grim-faced and avoiding eye contact, reporters and photogs are permitted to stand behind a velvet rope cordoning off a narrow gauntlet on the opposite of the sidewalk. We implore A-listers to stop and chat, though Allen & Co. discourages them from complying.

Its the most undignified reporting assignment Ive ever had, says one veteran journo, laughing at his lot as we obediently stayed in our place, inside the penalty box.  At one point I snag a kindly lawyer who pleads,  Can we talk later tonight? Im uncomfortable standing here talking to you.

Later tonight meant after 9 p.m. in the main lodge, where the swells hung out beyond our reach in a dark, blocked-off bar. We media types lingered just outside, longing to snag a few minutes with anyone of note who had to make a trip to the restroom in the lobby.

Now and then a name-badger would venture into the press pack: Time Warner chief Jeffrey Bewkes, NBC Universal CEO Steven Burke, cable baron John Malone.  And suddenly, for reporters, the wait was worth it, the access heady and invigorating; a few cruel moments of encouragement bestowed on the hopeless.

Googles Eric Schmidt held court for reporters for 90 minutes on Thursday, willing to answer most all questionsand all of it entirely on the record.  Which surely horrified the folks at Allen & Co., but Schmidt has what you might call Forget-You money.

In this set-up, real reporting is all but impossible (bingo!). Landing interviews was a tough sell.  We could get only one guest, Activision Blizzard CEO Bobby Kotick, willing to break away and be shuttled to a Fox satellite truck exiled in an empty parking lot almost a mile off the reservation. His interview is here.

A few select journos get full access (author Ken Auletta, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, CNBC anchor Becky Quick, Fox News commentator Monica Crowley), but at the highest price a media guy can pay: Its all off the record.

For the rest of us in media, though, why do we keep trying to cover this anti-media mixer?  Sun Valley hasnt made big news in years.  And if these big names truly want to avoid us, why doesnt Allen & Co. simply shut off all media access altogether?  Rent out the entire site and have at it.

I blame it on a dysfunctional symbiosis.  For the press, maybe its our own self-loathingwe yearn to cover those who would spurn us, to get into a club that wont admit us (an old Groucho Marx joke turned inside-out).  For the famed and sometimes defamed, maybe its some kind of loathing, too: Would their regard and riches exist without us?

Dennis Kneale is on Twitter at @denniskneale