For the week of July 14, 1999 thru July 20, 1999
National media covers heavyweights at Allen Conference
By GREG STAHL
Express Staff Writer
Shortly after noon on Friday, CNN corespondent Casey Wian walked into Sun Valley Companys 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 shell 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, Microsofts Bill Gates and Amazon.coms 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 Americas 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 Allens 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 Britains 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 youll 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 weve been held at arms 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 Whos Who of Americas 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.
"Thats 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, someones 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 readers 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 peoples fascination with personalities, even if theres 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 isnt 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 dont seem to be interested in discussing real issues anymore, Attwood said.
"People dont 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 isnt 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.
"Weve 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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