For the week of July 14, 1999  thru July 20, 1999  

Mogul mania

National media covers heavyweights at Allen Conference

 

"We are a culture that is inebriated with entertainment. In prior centuries, people had far less access to the amount of information we do, but they discussed and talked. Today we are inundated. There is no way to sort out the crap from the stuff with substance. There’s really nowhere to begin."

Philosopher Jacques Ellul’s look at modern media, recounted by University of Idaho communications dean Roy Atwood.


By GREG STAHL
Express Staff Writer

Shortly after noon on Friday, CNN corespondent Casey Wian walked into Sun Valley Company’s Boiler Room Restaurant. It has been converted to a press room for the multi-billion dollar celebrity ensemble that gathered in Sun Valley Resort for a four-day vacation last week.

"We have Jeff Berg (chief exec of Hollywood-based International Creative Management) lined up for 4 p.m., and I talked to Oprah (as in Winfrey), but she’ll be out hiking this afternoon," he told CNN field producer James McGinnis.

McGinnis opened his laptop computer, picked up his cellular phone and began making arrangements for the 4 p.m. interview.

CNN was not alone in Sun Valley for investment banker and media mogul Herbert Allen Jr.’s 17th annual Allen Conference, which attracted the likes of Winfrey, Microsoft’s Bill Gates and Amazon.com’s Jeffry Bezos. Other impact millionaires, many of whom are household names, were there, too. Michael Dell of Dell Computer Corp., Warren Buffett of Berkshire Hathaway Inc., Jack Valenti of Motion Picture Association of America, Inc. and Candice Bergen, who owns The Whole Enchilada were also there.

Matching America’s movers and shakers was a clutch of high-profile media organizations. It all added up to a people-watching scramble.

Inspiring the feeding frenzy was Allen’s publicized decision to open the door for the first time to news coverage. Media groups obliged.

CNBC, Bloomberg News, The New York Post, USA Today and Great Britain’s The Guardian, to name a few, all came to cover the multi-billion-dollar gathering.

"When you have a group of CEOs and top-level company executives, the hope is you can get hold of them," McGinnis said. "Maybe you’ll get an unguarded moment with them."

In prior years, New York Post photographer Francis Specker said, the press was more or less ignored. The novelty of now being able to cover the event, Specker said, is probably why so many news teams were in Sun Valley over the weekend.

Still, news stories were hard to come by.

"We were sort of invited this year, but we’ve been held at arm’s length as well," McGinnis said.

Most important negotiations, McGinnis said, were taking place behind closed doors.

Allen had issued a letter listing guidelines for the press that limited photographs and interviews. The press was able to talk only to those who volunteered interviews.

"Our conference in Sun Valley has always been a family event where our guests have been able to enjoy their privacy as they would on a vacation," the letter stated.

Despite the restrictions, McGinnis and other reporters said the conference has become a veritable Who’s Who of America’s corporate and entertainment czars, and personalities, and as such deserves wide news coverage.

The meeting came into the limelight several years ago, McGinnis said, when Walt Disney Co. acquired Capital Cities/ABC in a $19-million deal that was born during the Allen Conference.

"That’s become sort of the lore of this place," he said. "People come here to settle deals, make new ones and talk among themselves."

New York Post reporter Jon Elson, who was in Sun Valley with a team of three Post writers, said that his team had talked to most of the influential people attending the conference.

"These guys are the gods of the media business. If one of them sneezes, someone’s going to want to read about it," he said.

Elson said the money The Post spent to get three reporters to Sun Valley will certainly pay off in the long run. The team expected to write a column each day, he said, plus one or two stories for the weekend.

"Our readers will eat this up," he said.

University of Idaho dean of communications Roy Atwood said the primary reason for such media coverage is likely because it satisfies the reader’s infatuation with famous personalities.

"Readers are curious about famous people," he said. "Celebrity is such an important thing in our culture today that people are just consumed by it."

Atwood said many ratings depend on people’s fascination with personalities, even if there’s no substance.

He said inhabitants of modern cultures have to dig to find news coverage with substance. That suggests that ours is a culture that isn’t interested in good discourse, but in entertaining itself, he said.

Atwood referred to a book, called Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Showbusiness by Neil Postman. In the book, Postman states that public discourse today has collapsed, based on what the media provides, which in turn is what readers demand.

Traditionally, the media provided the material with which people learn about and discuss issues, but many people don’t seem to be interested in discussing real issues anymore, Attwood said.

"People don’t know how many provinces are in Canada or who their senators are but can tell you who slept with whom," Atwood said.

But all of this isn’t new.

Modern-day sensationalism and a preoccupation with the bizarre go back to the late 1800s, Atwood said. Since the 1830s, the United States has had a commercial press that has done all it could to attract readers and advertising, but the most extreme examples are coming out of the most modern era.

Prior to that, dating back to the arrival of the first newspaper in the United States in 1690, newspapers were used as political mudslinging mechanisms, he noted.

"We’ve lost the venues where people sit down and talk and iron issues out," Atwood said. "When you add the tabloidization of so many papers, like USA Today, people are really clueless.

"In order to be a well-informed citizen today, you almost have to turn the television off and work at it," he said.

 

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