Friday, July 9, 2010

In journalistsí eyes, Allen & Co. is a zoo

Press corps and conference guests kept apart by event security, barricades


By TREVON MILLIARD
Express Staff Writer

From left: Haim Saban, CEO and chair of worldwide music and entertainment company Saban Capital Group, eats lunch with Jean Bernard Levy, director of interactive-entertainment company Activision Blizzard. Forbes estimates Sabanís net worth at $2.5 billion. Photo by David N. Seelig

The Allen & Co. conference annually gathers some of the world's richest and most powerful media moguls for a luxurious week at Sun Valley Resort, but it is—in many ways—a zoo.

The press discovered early Wednesday morning that they could no longer linger inside the Sun Valley Inn, waiting to approach the likes of Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg and News Corp. CEO Rupert Murdoch as they exited ballrooms at the end of panel discussions.

Starting Wednesday, security personnel forced journalists—from The New York Times, Financial Times, Bloomberg, Associated Press and other agencies—to stay within a roped-off, 4-by-7-foot area of the pathway near the duck pond for the confab's remaining four days.

"We're now in the kennel, the pen," said Financial Times reporter Ken Li. "It's really disturbing."

A few feet away, the 300 or so guests eat lunch around the duck pond next to the Inn, blocked from sight by an encircling wall of potted trees and shrubs brought in for the event. A prettier cage than the press pen, but a cage nonetheless.

Business reporters aren't used to being treated like paparazzi and screaming out someone's name for their attention, a photo or hopefully a few quotable comments.

Richard Rosenblatt, chair of MySpace at the time the company was sold to News Corp. in 2005, walked up during lunch and joked about the situation.

"Journalists, the bedrock of society, are sitting out here begging for scraps," he said.

The remark couldn't have been more true.

New York Times reporter Michael J. de la Merced said Wednesday that a waiter came over with cookies for the reporters, but only gave the treats to those staying in the "press pen."

"A way to train reporters?" he asked.

But more often than not, the journalists aren't the animals at the zoo looking out of the cage. They're the spectators leaning on the bars to peer in, hoping to catch a glimpse of the elusive titans behind the shrubbery barricade.

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"I don't know who's in the cage, us or them," Li said.

The journalists know that the best time for a sighting, and maybe even a word or two, is feeding time—that is, lunch.

Reporters also take advantage of leaked copies of the conference schedule, letting them know when the business leaders will have a free moment.

The schedule also includes some of the bigger names in attendance, showing that Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong will speak Friday morning.

He will be preceded by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who will give a speech titled "The Business of Running a City" with two other mayors.

Also on Friday: a talk titled "Global Risk" with Michael Hayden, former director of the National Security Agency and Central Intelligence Agency.

CNN anchor Anderson Cooper will moderate a discussion among Microsoft Chair Bill Gates, wife Melinda Gates and Berkshire Hathaway CEO Warren Buffet on Saturday morning to wrap up the conference. The event comes to an official close Saturday night, when many guests will enjoy scheduled activities at the resort, including an outdoor ice show.

But the whole goal of attending journalists has nothing to do with being privy to the lectures. They linger all day in hopes of luring a mogul close to the cage and getting a whiff of the next monumental business deal.

Last year, Sun Valley was the hatching grounds for Comcast's eventual acquisition that gave the cable company control of NBC Universal.

Li was here for last year's conference but didn't get the scoop. No one did. Li found out about the transaction the same as everyone else, five months later when it was announced. But it was hatched here.

As for this summer's conference, journalists have been struggling to catch wind of anything even close to the Comcast/NBC caliber.

Li said the moguls aren't particularly talkative this summer. He said some, like Bill Gates, are never willing to talk and therefore are never approached.

Journalists are left to speculate. So-and-so was seen with so-and-so at the bar talking for an hour, walking through town or having dinner together.

What that could mean, no one quite knows.

Trevon Milliard: tmilliard@mtexpress.com




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