Sun Valley, Idaho -- Walking to the Sun Valley Lodge this weekend, the cigar smoke hit you from 50 yards away. This town is pegged as a playground for the rich, but even here, the telling scent of Dominican tobacco was an anomaly, a flare signaling invasion. Stumbling upon a cabal of stogie-sucking CEOs in the hotel carport was the reminder: it's Allen & Company time in Sun Valley.
Late Thursday night, the lodge that has been welcoming notables and dignitaries since 1936 was bustling with activity. The dim Duchin Room lounge and bar was spilling loosened tycoons into the lobby's glare and gaze. Rampaging acquisitionist Rupert Murdoch seemed dazed as he shuffled under the lights. Looking a bit helpless, he was swarmed by financial reporters within seconds. Like fat children roasting marshmallows around a campfire, they jostled for space around him.
Andrew Ross Sorkin, the New York Times' enterprising DealBook editor, was stationed on a far wall, relaxed and readying for a 6 a.m. flight. He was answering some of my questions about the financial beat, but stopped mid-thought when the scrum formed around Murdoch. "Well, that's ridiculous," Sorkin said, bemused by his press peers suckling to the Australian magnate.
With all this rubbernecking, it was hard to keep a steady conversation alive at Allen & Co. Driving the resort grounds, you might see Bill and Melinda Gates wandering around looking sort of lost and lose your own thought.
What was the story here? Why did the New York Times, Bloomberg and Reuters send multiple reporters to the sub-alpine Idaho desert in mid-summer? Was it to beat out rogues from the New York Post, the Financial Times, Fox News, CNBC, The Hollywood Reporter and ABC?
On Thursday morning, the retired NYPD officers imported as security were corralling anyone with a pen, paper, lens or microphone into a sad little corner of stone pathway. From this cage, they couldn't easily disturb the VIP flow as it streamed from a morning seminar towards lunch. The tycoons were breezy and casual as they ignored reporters' calls. Some of the press began to grumble. Their reasons for waking at 6:00 a.m. and being repeatedly snubbed for interviews were vague. Existential panic seemed a reasonable response to this miserable beat.
"You are reporting on nothing," Sorkin said. "It's like going to the zoo and watching rich people sniff each other."
As the guy who made mergers and acquisitions reporting fun, Sorkin can afford the self-deprecation. But for various stringers going home story-less, the Allen & Co. assignment will not be so fondly recalled. It will seem only that they were used, wielded as tools to reinforce a necessary caste system.
"By keeping the media on the outside looking in, [Allen & Co.] keeps up the air of exclusivity," Sorkin said. The press functions to remind the attendees of their importance. Some of them may even use the press to their corporate advantage, but most avoided reporters as if they were children running onto a busy street.
Among the reporters, the divisions seemed even harsher. I asked a Bloomberg reporter why, specifically, he was in Idaho. "I cannot talk to you or anyone else either on or off the record," he barked. Barriers beget barriers.
The best reporters in Sun Valley used Allen & Co. as a professional petri dish. "The job is less about writing and more about managing relationships," the Post's Peter Lauria said on Plum TV, a local network that occupies a separate caste here in Ketchum. For reporters like Lauria and Sorkin, the tag-along to the annual deal-making orgy may well prove worthy down the line. But for others, the promise of financial porn likely left them limp.
Friday night and Rupert Murdoch was back in the Duchin Room lounge, sipping drinks. I asked him if there was any sense in sending so much press to Allen & Co.
So why are so many of them here?
"They think they will sniff something out," Murdoch told me. "But there's no story, aside from me crawling on all fours looking for my wedding ring."
Was it all then, as Sorkin had said, just to feed the beast?
With a couple of drinks in him, Murdoch seemed friendly enough, so I asked his table partner, Viacom CEO Phillipe Dauman, if I might join them to carry on the discussion.
"I'd prefer it if you didn't," Dauman said.