The Paparazzi Theater of Sun Valley
The fate of the corporate universe is often decided at Sun Valley where billionaires congregate every year. The media show up but walk away with only sunburns.
Every year, during the week after July 4, the tiny resort town of Sun Valley, Idaho, sees perhaps the highest concentration of billionaires in any one place at any one time.
It’s not much more than a patch of manicured grassland at the base of the aptly named Dollar Mountain, about 200 miles west of Yellowstone National Park and 2 miles east of Ernest Hemingway’s grave. Somehow, it feels desperately picturesque, like it wants you to love it. It’s the middle of nowhere.
Starting Tuesday, corporate titans, foreign leaders, Wall Street barons and the Silicon Valley elite arrived after a year off due to the pandemic and checked in at the nearly century-old Sun Valley Lodge — a hulking ski resort styled like a Swiss chalet — to relax and talk shop, perhaps bike a few mountain trails. (The event, started in 1983, arguably marked the origin of the corporate fleece vest.)
The register of names in attendance conjures a keen sense of the postindustrial gilded age: cable giant John Malone, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, Google directors Larry Page and Sergey Brin, Apple chief executive Tim Cook, New England Patriots owner Bob Kraft, Warren Buffett, Bill Gates, Mike Bloomberg, Jeff Bezos, and on and on. (The 90-year-old Rupert Murdoch, a regular, plans to sit out this year.)
Look also for David Zaslav, the head of Discovery, who just orchestrated the purchase of WarnerMedia from AT&T in May, as well as Shari Redstone, the leader of ViacomCBS, a company that has now become a more likely takeover target given how much the media world has shrunk.
Hosted by the banking firm Allen & Company, the gathering is exactly the kind of gated affair that invites conspiracy and whispers of secret conclaves where the powerful decide the fate of entire industries over a meal or a drink.
And that’s exactly what happens.
Sun Valley is one of the few events on the world calendar where major deals are struck and corporate disputes are settled — or sparked. Verizon’s purchase of AOL, for example. Or Comcast’s blockbuster acquisition of NBCUniversal. The Walt Disney Company’s deal for ABC/Capital Cities was seeded at Sun Valley. So, too, Bezos’s purchase of The Washington Post, where he hashed out the details of the transaction with patriarch Don Graham over several multi-hour meetings.
Anytime a group this powerful congregates, journalists are sure to be nearby. They flock to Idaho to budge up against rope lines set by Allen & Company’s security detail to shout questions and crane their sun-blistered heads for a view of the inner sanctum, otherwise known as the Duchin Lounge, the resort’s bar.
It’s a civilized, high-end farce. The masters of the universe will smile and say hi — they’re happy to see an eager news media stand witness to their importance — but they’ll never talk about what’s happening, or who they’ve been meeting, or what deals they’re contemplating. Why would they? Just take my picture already.
Still, reporters come to satisfy an editor’s last-minute notion, or newbies — prompted by veteran colleagues looking for a laugh — show up all shined and polished, ready to snap up any molecule of news. It’s paparazzi theater. I stopped going after 2013.
Even the reporter’s root paranoia — I’m missing a major news event right now — loses its power at Sun Valley. Fewer and fewer of us show up. That’s partly because we’ve been pushed farther and farther away — literally. In 2009, we were banned from the bar. Sometime later, we were prevented from booking rooms at the resort. Now, even the lobby is off limits.
In an earlier time, before the world started contriving their messages via social media and stopped talking to the press, reporters could see themselves in the mirrored bar-back of Duchin’s as they sidled up to Harvey Weinstein to get his take on the latest Hollywood deal. Or buy Chuck Dolan, the head of Madison Square Garden, a drink. One time, Sumner Redstone bugged a reporter to change the channel on the lounge television so he could watch golf, then asked the reporter to order him an ice cream. Murdoch lost his wedding ring in the lobby and a group of journalists patted the ground to help him retrieve it. I don’t think he ever found it.
None of these stories qualifies as news, but they made for great anecdotes and a few anxious journalists even stretched them into 500-word brights. I’m here, so I might as well write something.
So in honor of What Once Was, here are a handful of some of the best Sun Valley tales over the years from a notable clutch of media reporters.
(It’ll never be like this again.)
That time we almost hit Mark Zuckerberg and then someone tried to take his company…
By Kenneth Li (when he was working for The Financial Times)
This is the biggest scoop never published out of Herb Allen’s Sun Valley mogul fest, or whatever we called it back in 2010.
One evening, after we tired of popping out of bushes and the last of the Lycra-clad moguls had returned to their cabins, a group of media reporters hopped into someone’s rental car to head to town for dinner. As we tore out of the parking lot, we swerved around and nearly hit no other than Mark Zuckerberg.
I forget if we, or I, or someone tweeted and retweeted “We almost hit Mark!” But it clearly traveled and reached one Paul Ceglia.
He saw our tweets and DM’d at least two of us. One of us responded. At the time, nobody knew who he was, but it turned out he was trying to locate Zuckerberg to serve him papers in a lawsuit where he would claim 84 percent ownership of Facebook.
I know, bonkers.
After explaining to him that journalists aren’t in the business of serving papers, I reminded him it’s a free country and our tweets are geotagged. It was also no secret what we were covering and where we were located.
I agreed to speak with him after reviewing his lawsuit. David Gelles, my reporting partner back in the office, vetted Ceglia’s background and checked that it was an actual suit.
A day later, Ceglia’s lackeys arrived at the Sun Valley Lodge, armed with a copy of the suit.
Zuckerberg, I was told by text, was served under a white awning on a crisp July morning.
We filed our copy by midday, giddy with excitement of breaking the only thing to ever have come out of Sun Valley.
Hours later, we were told our editor in chief spiked the story because he thought it was a frivolous suit.
Me? I have this anecdote for Ed Lee’s Substack.
That time Harvey Weinstein was arguing with Mike Eisner and Dick Parsons had ‘the scoop’…
My best Sun Valley story takes place in a distant era — I believe 2004 — when the Weinsteins were feuding with Disney and talk was rampant they were going to try to separate Miramax from the Mouse.
Tim Arango, at that time with The New York Post, summoned me to the Duck Pond, a key meeting point at the Sun Valley Lodge. Michael Eisner and Harvey Weinstein were having an animated discussion with Jim Wiatt of William Morris serving as a sort of referee.
I do not know if Arango will back me up on this, but my recollection was that we thought I should approach them with the thought that they’d be more amenable to talking with The Wall Street Journal than The New York Post.
After the conversation broke up, Eisner came walking toward us. “Mr. Eisner, I’m from The—”
“NO! NOOOO! NO!”
All conversation immediately stopped. Eisner strolled away.
“Sorry, guys,” Weinstein says.
Then a voice wafted down from a few tables away.
“Guys, I’ve got the scoop!” It was Dick Parsons, the head of Time Warner, sitting with Sony chief Howard Stringer. “I’ll tell you all about it later.”
It will surprise no one to find out that he never did.
Why you always need to carry a notebook
I and Ken Li, at the time my competitor and once-and-future colleague, were catching a smoke behind the building where they hold the sessions. I don’t remember its name. We had a view of an unremarkable parking lot. Nothing much was happening until Ken spied a guy walking across it alone.
“Rupert,” Ken said. (As in Murdoch.)
We hustled after him and began asking questions about something that was important then and forgotten now. I realized I had a pen but no paper. I took Rupert’s quotes on my palm. I’m still not sure what he said, but Ken and I agreed on what it must have been.
Anyway, notebooks. Keep them on you. Separately, don’t try cutting through the hedges between condo blocks on your way home from the bar. I took a drunken tumble down a small cliff that the brambles and underbrush obscured.
And I’m sure everyone knows this, but the swans (or were they geese?) at the Lodge are assholes.
That time Rupert Murdoch lost his wedding ring…
The Allen & Company media conference was a different event the time I went in 2008. Journalists could still mingle with the moguls and accost them freely between sessions — or even as they were coming out of the bathroom, as I did with Warren Buffett (unfortunately the Sage of Omaha was not in the chattiest mood).
Jeff Bezos, Sergey Brin, Bob Iger and one Harvey Weinstein were among those in Sun Valley that year. Aside from the mountain biking trail or the walkway between the restaurant and the conference room, the bar was the best place to get some off-the-record intel. It was outside the bar, in a lobby with a seating area, where I had an unusual encounter with Rupert Murdoch.
It was late and he clearly had an enjoyable evening judging by how much he was swaying. But he didn’t look too happy and was getting to his knees to peer under a set of sofas. “Rupert,” I said, approaching him, “what are you doing?”
“I’ve lost my fucking wedding ring,” he growled.
He was married to Wendi Deng at the time — she was at Sun Valley that year too — and had been fiddling with the ring and dropped it somewhere. I joined the search effort, helping move the sofa so Murdoch could get a proper look underneath. Gordon Crawford, the big tech investor, came over and the three of us pulled all the cushions off. We searched and we looked for several minutes but it was to no avail.
Eventually Murdoch gave up, vowing to return for a proper look in the morning, so we had a chat about the conference. He talked about his newspapers — this was before the phone hacking scandal had properly exploded — and spoke in rather unfavorable terms about an attendee at that year’s event.
I never found out if he eventually located the wedding ring, although I hope he did. After all, who wants to lose an item of such personal value? His marriage to Deng came to an end several years later — although that was for other reasons.
That time Sumner Redstone showed up…
“I would rather be a lover than a fighter,” Sumner Redstone, the Viacom founder, told reporters seated like kindergarteners at the Sun Valley Lodge on July 13, 2007.
What prompted this impromptu visit? The night before, Eric Schmidt, the head of Google, performed an entirely sober, on-the-record blasting of Viacom for suing YouTube for $1 billion for copyright infringement.
Back then, as it is now, Silicon Valley operated on an ask-for-forgiveness-not-permission ethos. And that got Google in hot water with the litigious Redstone.
“Viacom is a company built on lawsuits, just look at their history!” Schmidt told reporters that evening to a largely inebriated group of journalists that included the sober David Carr, Seth Sutel of the AP, me and some guy from Men’s Vogue (!).
Carr’s Dealbook dispatch was probably what inspired Sumner’s trip:
Late in the evening, Eric Schmidt, chief executive of Google, came down looking for Sergey Brin, who had left for the evening. He walked out onto the patio and surveyed all the corporate might arrayed before him — and then chose to plop down with a group of workaday reporters and photographers. It was the journalistic equivalent of DefCon4.
Fast forward a day later. Redstone is sitting in the lobby of the Sun Valley Lodge, in front of a fireplace in a plush armchair with reporters fanned out on the carpet like school kids gathered for story time because there weren’t enough chairs.
As he regaled us with tales of codebreaking during the Second World War, a few of us noticed something else. His second wife, the former schoolteacher Paula Fortunato, who wore what may have been terry cloth tennis shorts, was folding and unfolding her legs, à la Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct. She was seated behind Sumner at the ledge of the fireplace, and everyone on the floor was eye level with her knees.
“Psst, hey, you seeing what I see?” Reporter One whispered to Reporter Two, who was furiously scribbling notes.
Reporter Two looked up. “Is that….?”
[REDACTED] Reporter One whispered.