Notes from behind the Tensabarriers of Sun Valley

Diller, Buffett, Gates, Bewkes, Murdoch. ()
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Editors' note: This article was prepared for Capital by a reporter for another publication.

The billionaires, entrepreneurs, chief executives and heads of state began arriving last Tuesday afternoon in the sharp summer heat of Sun Valley, Idaho—the resort town where investment bank Allen & Co. has held its annual conference since 1983.

The annual meeting is likely the highest concentration of C.E.O.s, government leaders and billionaire philanthropists in one place at one time at any point in the calendar year. These really are the one percent.

Naturally, reporters flock to Sun Valley to nip at their heels. Last week, we producers, photographers and journalists, from CNBC, The Wall Street Journal, the Associated Press, Reuters, The New York Times, TechCrunch, Bloomberg TV, Bloomberg News, Fox Business Channel and the New York Post found ourselves budged up against nylon rope lines set up by Allen & Co.'s security staff, the same kind movie theaters use to herd ticket buyers.

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It's a very civilized, high-end farce. Some conference guests from time to time cast their familiar sayings before the eager press when they can't avoid them; others ran away at the sight of us, literally. Most stretched their lips tightly across their teeth and say, "I wish I could, but I just can't."

Not a single one minds the presence of the media here, the cameras, the reporters, in the great scheme of things. It's a matter of distinction to be here, and so they pose for photos; it's a good opportunity because it's a resort, and they're usually dressed casually. But serious inquiry is discouraged; it's a sort of openness that's finally a phantasm.

Let's just enjoy the sun, shall we?

CBS chief executive Les Moonves, one of the highest paid media executives, presumed nothing when he arrived. He pulled up in a rented Chrysler 300, parked under the porte-cochère at the Sun Valley Resort, stepped out and waved to the cameras in his red-plaid button-down shirt and blue jeans.

"Hey guys," he said, flashing his teeth. "I'm not talking."

The first day saw arrivals like former Yahoo and Warner Bros. head Terry Semel, Amazon C.E.O. Jeff Bezos, Warren Buffett, Time Warner Inc. C.E.O. Jeffrey Bewkes, Viacom head Philippe Dauman, Coca-Cola head Muhtar Kent, DirecTV C.E.O. Mike White, Barry Diller, News Corp. C.E.O. Rupert Murdoch (along with his sons Lachlan and James), Mayor Michael Bloomberg, DreamWorks C.E.O. Jeffrey Katzenberg, and Square C.E.O. Jack Dorsey. The King of Jordan arrived the next day. Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti showed up Thursday.

Bewkes, head of Time Warner Inc, retrieved his overnight bag from the back of a chauffeured S.U.V., faced the cameras and recorders and took a moment to chat. As the head of HBO, Time magazine and Warner Bros. film studios, he was well aware of the meta-theatricality behind the scene: media reporters covering media executives.

Reporter: Jeff, what are you looking forward to at the conference?

Bewkes: Seeing all you folks.

Reporter: What's happening this year? What's the theme?

Bewkes: What's the theme? I'll tell you. Media ... is going to grow.

Reporter: Come on, what's going on?

Bewkes: I don't want you to take anything seriously because I'm trying to give you a light entertainment.

By the third day, billionaires Warren Buffett and Bill Gates walking side-by-side had become a common sight, as if elderly friends in a small town. Approaching the second– and third-richest people in the world, we introduced ourselves, and they obligingly shook hands.

"How are you liking the conference?" we asked.

Both billionaires shook their heads.

"You mean, you don't like it?" we asked.

"Nothing to say," Buffett said as he walked away. Gates continued to wobble his head disapprovingly, suggesting we had somehow broken the rules of engagement.

Here then, the ground rules, according to Allen & Co. security:

  1. No entering areas marked "private," which includes the Duchin Lounge, theresort's main bar.
  2. You can walk with guests if they're talking to you. Otherwise, you have to leave them alone.
  3. No talking to or taking pictures of the kids.
  4. Have a good time. Seriously.

Guests are bound by rules as well. They can talk to the press, but are discouraged from discussing the conference itself. If they talk, they have to talk on the record.

Netflix Inc. chief executive Reed Hastings, who arrived late Tuesday, after most of us had left for the day, walked toward the rope line after one of us yelled out his name. A smile on his face, he appeared to acknowledge us, but turned quickly away once he spotted a recorder.

"I have to stick to the script," he said. "Sorry guys."

"There is no script," Allen & Co. executive Leroy Kim told us in the resort lobby just outside the bar where reporters congregate nightly, hoping for a lubricated comment. "We don't tell them what to say or not say. We're hanging out here, talking, right?"

The bar, Duchin Lounge, is unremarkable. It holds half-a-dozen beer taps and an endless array of spirits stacked up against the mirrored barback. Allen & Co. reserves Duchin for every night of the conference, and reporters are not allowed in. We can, however, loiter about the lobby just adjacent to the bar, where the staff will serve us. Eventually, some of the guests will spill over into our territory, turning the room into a kind of grade-school dance scene as moguls flirt, then decline overtures from the media.

Some of the biggest business mergers were hatched at Sun Valley, including Comcast Corp.'s purchase of NBC Universal. There is some debate over the role the conference played in AOL Inc.'s merger with Time Warner Inc. Time Warner Chairman Gerald Levin did meet with AOL chief executive Steve Case at Sun Valley in 1998, a year and a half before the merger was announced, though it is unclear how deeply they discussed business.

"Deals don't happen here," Providence Equity Partners Inc. C.E.O. Jonathan Nelson said outside the bar on the first night. "I don't know you guys are going to get anything. People here meet. They drink. They talk. That's it."

Not long after Newark mayor Cory Booker met and talked with Facebook C.E.O. Mark Zuckerberg at Sun Valley in 2010, the master of the largest social network pledged $100 million to help Newark schools. They were both at the bar every night last week.

On the second evening, News Corp.'s deputy Chief Operating Officer James Murdoch was seen drinking with Tom Glocer, the former head of Thomson Reuters Corp. As they left, Murdoch draped his arm over Glocer's shoulders and said, "So I have this other dinner to go to, but I want to talk more about this later."

"Sure, that sounds great," Glocer said.

Like foreign correspondents, reporters at Sun Valley are simply left to stand witness to these kinds of close huddles, the chance meetings between powerful executives that could turn into significant partnerships later on.

That easy, collegial atmosphere, combined with all the secrecy, suggests there is, in fact, some global synod at work. That is the fear, anyway, and this year, for the first time, protesters gathered within the resort to make that point: 12 of them.

It was the third day or so, and four of them held yellow police tape while six others lay down on the ground, a re-staged Occupy Wall Street—in miniature.

"I would like to see the media cover the real story," said Shavone Hasse, who teaches writing at a community college. "The huge wealth-inequality these people represent. They come to Idaho; they come to Sun Valley, and the wealth inequality all across the state gets totally overlooked. Idaho is just left out of everybody's head. It's astounding to me!"

Less than a hundred yards away, Apple Inc. C.E.O. Tim Cook, who commands the world's most valuable company, held meetings within the open space of the Konditorei Cafe, the only coffee shop on the resort and naturally the base for the press. (The resort is designed to look like a quaint Swiss village, hence "Konditorei." It's an aesthetic made more jarring by the ranks of young, Polish wait staff hired for the summer months. In the Winter, South Americans are favored, to coincide with their summer.)

In plain view, Cook met with Akamai Technologies Inc.'s outgoing C.E.O. Paul Sagan, who was recently being considered to run the New York Times Co.

And the following day, Cook met with Youku Inc. C.E.O. Victor Koo in the same place amid an even heavier contingent of reporters.

News Corp. C.E.O. Rupert Murdoch, who is a fixture at Sun Valley, was walking toward the coffee shop that afternoon with his son Lachlan.

"Rupert!" we yelled out.

We introduced ourselves and asked who would lead the new publishing company that he announced would be split off from News Corp. The new company will include The Wall Street Journal and the New York Post, both of which had sent journalists to cover the conference.

"I have nothing on that now," he said with a smile.

"We'll be at the bar later on," we said. "Can we talk there?"

"Sure, I'll try," he said.

"I'll be there too," Lachlan said.

"Great," we said. "Hope to see you both."

That evening, Murdoch's wife Wendi Deng Murdoch was at the bar talking, incidentally, to Koo. Lachlan and his brother James were also present.

When we asked Wendi Murdoch whether Rupert would be joining her, she shook her head animatedly, swinging her dress.

"He's not coming," she told us. "He said there are too many reporters hanging around here."