In the fight for control of news coverage between powerful politicians and business moguls and the reporters who cover them, it's clear who is winning: The powerful, not the reporters.
A reporter anonymously wrote for Capital New York today about the way billionaires, politicians, and CEO's kept reporters in the dark at last week's Sun Valley conference, an annual meeting famous for being the breeding ground of big business deals. It was a depressing description of the powerlessness of the media. Reporters "nip at [the powerful's] heels." The powerful, in turn, flash smiles and say nothing.
Publicly, the investment bank that runs the conference, Allen & Co., says deals don't happen in Sun Valley, and encourages reporters to just "have fun," the reporter writes. The reality is that in the past deals as big as the Comcast Corp. purchase of NBC Universal have gone down at the mountain getaway. "Serious inquiry is discouraged; it's a sort of openness that's finally a phantasm," the reporter says. The piece is rife with details about the frustrating veil of secrecy the conference attendees kept up:
- Reporters from mainstream outlets including The New York Times, Bloomberg News, and the Associated Press were sequestered from the attendees by "nylon rope lines set up by Allen & Co.'s security staff, the same kind movie theaters use to herd ticket buyers."
- Some attendees spoke to the press, but they would say little of note. Time Warner Inc. CEO Jeffrey Bewkes told reporters "I don't want you to take anything seriously because I'm trying to give you a light entertainment."
- Billionaires Warren Buffet and Bill Gates were strolling as if they were "elderly friends in a small town" on the third day. When reporters asked how they liked the conference, the two shook their heads and made no comment. Bill Gates then "continued to wobble his head disapprovingly, suggesting we had somehow broken the rules of engagement."
- Netflix Inc. Chief Reed Hastings smiled to acknowledge reporters but then told them "I have to stick to the script. Sorry guys." Later, Allen & Co. told reporters that there is no script.
- News Corp. CEO Rupert Murdoch refused to answer questions about his company's recent split into separate publishing and entertainment companies. When reporters asked if Murdoch would talk at the bar later, Murdoch said he'd try. But later at the bar, his wife Wendi told reporters he wasn't coming because "there are too many reporters hanging around here."
In the absence of substantial interaction, media outlets wrote stories based largely on speculation and past happenings. The New York Times' Dealbook said maybe Apple's Tim Cook is planning partnerships for home entertainment expansion, based on seeing his many one-on-one private meetings with media executives. Cook turned down an interview request. The Wall Street Journal wondered if Mayor Michael Bloomberg's innocuous answer about indispensable newspapers signals anything about the rumors that he'll buy a newspaper after leaving office.
The Capital New York piece captured the explicit powerlessness of the reporters at Sun Valley faced with collectively quiet moguls and politicians. Earlier this week, The New York Times' Jeremy Peters revealed that many major publications were allowing government officials to approve quotes before publication, a practice that was once an absolute-no for respectable journalists. It turns out journalists, desperate for access at all, feel forced to fall in line with the rules of their sources: Don't talk to me here. And if you do, I call the shots.