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Say Nothing

Thanks to a gag order, I'm not allowed to tell you what the greatest media minds of our times have to say. (But here's a hint: Even though it's the end of the world as we know it, they feel fine!)

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Top to bottom, Harvey Weinstein, Rupert Murdoch, and Barry Diller.  

I've been busy attending a mogul conference that I'm not allowed to write about. Or, as I understand it, I may reference the conference but not quote anyone who attended it or spoke at it.

Still, I believe I can fairly discuss the mogul participants -- a top-drawer group including Michael Bloomberg, Rupert Murdoch, Barry Diller, Steve Case, Michael Powell, Sir Howard Stringer, Arthur Sulzberger Jr., Harvey Weinstein, and the Robertses, father and son -- who are identified on the conference's Website. And as one of the official mogul interlocutors, I can, I suppose, quote myself.

Also, I would argue that within the established guidelines, I can discuss what was not said, and even attribute what wasn't said to who should have said it.

The three-day, $4,400 conference, called Foursquare, was produced by the Quadrangle Group and held at the grand ballroom of the Regent Hotel on Wall Street. Quadrangle is an investment fund specializing in media properties, run by Steven Rattner, who, through much of the nineties at Lazard Frères, was one of the best-known bankers in the media business (before that, he was a New York Times reporter; a big part of his portfolio is a close friendship with Times chairman Sulzberger). Rattner, also a major Democratic Party supporter who had been on the short-list for a Cabinet post in a Gore administration (while the conference proceeded, the Democrats were again being defeated), put together his media fund just as the media business was crashing. Assuming the crash has not yet finished, throwing a conference in the meantime might not be a bad way to wait for the bottom (like Herb Allen's Sun Valley gathering, it's a brand-building thing).

The conference was directed by John Battelle, who ran the now-defunct Internet-business magazine The Industry Standard, and John Heilemann, a business and political journalist. Battelle and Heilemann recruited their journalist friends -- Ken Auletta, Charlie Rose, Kurt Andersen, Forrest Sawyer, and me among them -- to conduct public (well, private public) discussions with the moguls and other big shots.

Why we would do this -- with the conference being off the record and without a scintilla of remuneration (we were not even proffered the conference swag bag) -- is not exactly clear. Except, of course, that we all crave acceptance and proximity -- and what's more, do not want it to appear that we were not invited.

It was, likewise, hard to figure out what drew everybody else here. After all, nobody is going to conferences anymore. Conferences -- people paying lots of money to go to a rarefied setting where they can meet people who are better than they are -- are part of the ever-receding boom culture.

And yet nearly every significant media personage turned out. There were even reports that several hundred tickets had actually been sold at full price.

The attendees were a variety of last-men-standing in their respective businesses, together with a small group of alumni from the conferences of the nineties -- rather like the remaining members of, say, the class of '34 at an Ivy League reunion -- and, most prevalent, many anonymous Wall Street types.

It was the facelessness and unresponsiveness and steadfastness of this last group that provided an unexpected "What, me worry?" vibe: Nobody seemed angry, or out of sorts, or eager to lay blame. Sangfroid ruled.

Judging by this genial complacency, you might even have reasonably concluded that the media business was a pretty healthy one.

The opposite, and hardly extreme, position -- that the U.S. media business is in about the same fix as the Japanese banking system -- was not at all part of the discussion. This wasn't, of course, surprising or illogical: If there was such a crisis, then the people here -- both on the stage and in the audience -- would have been the people who created it. It was therefore not likely that they would now be confessing guilt, or proposing radical overthrow.

There was really hardly any need for a gag order -- everyone was mum, or saccharine.

Charlie Rose interviewed former media mogul Mayor Bloomberg, who was in fine and convivial form -- possibly relieved to no longer have to talk about the media business (the city budget crisis notwithstanding).

The New Yorker's Ken Auletta politely and damningly interviewed a stubbornly unflappable Steve Case. This is what the AOL Time Warner chairman did not say: He did not say what he does with his day; he did not say whether he thought he bore any singular responsibility for what has happened at AOL Time Warner; he did not say why he should still have a job; he did not say why AOL can't deliver e-mail in a timely way.

Maybe this was a new philosophy in the media world: The smartest thing was not to be a big thinker anymore, not to be a visionary. They were the ones who got us into trouble. Don't blame us.

John Doerr, the venture capitalist, and James Barksdale, the former CEO of Netscape, did not say whether they believed the failure of the Internet impacted on their self-worth.

Michael Wolf ("the other"), a media-business consultant at McKinsey & Company, who irks me to no end because he wrote a vacuous and ass-kissing book about the entertainment economy that I am frequently credited -- or discredited -- with writing, interviewed FCC chairman Michael Powell (getting to interview Powell was a perk of McKinsey's being one of the conference's paying sponsors). Chairman Powell, looking especially inflated and self-satisfied, managed to avoid discussing the sense or reasonableness or economic efficacy of a generation of massive consolidation in the media and communications business.

The panel on advertising did not ask what happens to the media business if, as almost everyone expects, consumer advertising continues an inexorable process of reaching a dwindling number of people, for more and more money, and effecting the sale of fewer and fewer goods.

The panel on piracy did not address what will happen if people don't stop pirating -- as now seems the more reasonable scenario than either lawsuits stopping them or everybody's children at the conference suddenly starting to pay their parents' companies for what they've been downloading free.

The panel on news (with Sulzberger, CNN chairman Walter Isaacson, Wall Street Journal publisher Karen Elliot House, and NBC president Andy Lack) did not talk about what happens if the news audience keeps getting ever older and if, as now seems likely, younger people never develop an interest in news as a part of their daily information routine.

Barry Diller, coy and charming, did not outline his plot to take over Vivendi's American enterprises or say if he thought Jean-Marie Messier was one of the great knuckleheads of the age.

I had my own failures at prompting any public introspection or expiation. I moderated a panel called "The Burdens of Scale" with AOL Time Warner's Jeff Bewkes, News Corp.'s Peter Chernin, and Yahoo!'s Terry Semel, and tried to suggest that there probably wasn't that much difference between, say, Messier, Jerry Levin, Bob Pittman, Thomas Middelhoff, and most other seemingly successful media executives. But nobody fell on his sword. Now, possibly, it was pure obliviousness that was being articulated here. But then again, maybe it was a new philosophy in the media world: The smartest thing was not to be a big thinker anymore, not to be a visionary. They were the ones who got us into trouble. Whereas now we're just taking it one day at a time. So don't blame us.

Then, after the panel, I interviewed Murdoch, beamed in by satellite from London, and while I did ask the big figure on the screen above the Regent Ballroom how it felt to have held power in America longer than anyone else in our era (vastly longer than any other politician or business figure), I failed to ask him the more pertinent post-election question: Did he feel that Fox News deserved credit for the Republican victory (which, clearly, it does)?

We're the Fox Nation, making Murdoch, with a little critical interpretation, our leader.

The main conference dinner at the Museum of the American Indian was an awkward situation because the relative hoi polloi of the event (including many people who, I suppose, paid the full $4,400) were led one way, and a more exalted 50 or so (few of whom, I suspect, were paying anything) were led another.

I chose not to question too closely why I was included in the latter group -- in fact, I began to think this was my ascension moment (I'd assumed all the interlocutors were invited, but as I walked toward the dining room with Newsweek's Steven Levy, who had moderated a technology panel, he was suddenly intercepted and led away by formidable factotums). Here I was, for whatever reason, elevated from the peanut gallery to the skyboxes of the Establishment, suddenly cheek-by-jowl with at least half a dozen people I'd written about more or less intemperately (I'd quote the impish zinger Barry Diller aimed at me if I were allowed). It's a great country, I couldn't help thinking, Fox or not.

The dinner, hosted by Rattner and Sulzberger in an extraordinary room of wood carvings and inlays, gathered together a choice-enough crowd that a flash fire would have profoundly altered the course of the American media business.

There were seven or eight tables, each with six men and one woman, with everyone served a very big piece of meat.

The deal was that at each table, we were supposed to discuss the future of the business (topics provided) and, once again, try to answer that hoary question: What's the next big thing? Then, over dessert, Charlie Rose would lead us in a Socratic inquiry.

Everybody was very earnest. It was like a book-club meeting or a really painful wedding. I wasn't any less self-serious, finding myself suddenly, helplessly, from some deep wellspring of social animus and faux pas–ism, telling these people that the next big thing was that we would all soon find out how unhappy everybody is in the media business. That nobody can enjoy or get satisfaction from working in an uncertain colossus. That there is a dark and growing rage in the ranks. That while we partied, the media business was rebelling from within. It would be pulled apart by a bigness-induced psychosis, as well as by the ever-growing pressure and sure futility of the search for the next big thing.

For a moment, I thought to myself, You've really done it now -- Charlie looked at me with some concern. But the truth, I think, is that everybody was so relieved to be here (Martha was a no-show, and Jean-Marie Messier, one of the early conference headliners, had, I assumed, discreetly sent his regrets), to still be able to be here, that they seemed willing to overlook my bad manners as well as the sorry state of our world.

I could be invited back, even.


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