stop the presses

Among the Media Billionaires in Sun Valley

David Zaslav taking questions from the media pen. Photo: Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images

As I stood penned in with a pack of gossipy reporters outside the Sun Valley Lodge Tuesday afternoon, watching while a procession of billionaires streamed in, I was reminded of that apocryphal exchange between another couple of writers — F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway.

“The very rich are different from you and me,” Fitzgerald observed. “Yes,” said Hemingway, “they have more money.”

Hemingway first stayed at this lodge in 1939 and knew this town. It’s where he died. But Fitzgerald was right. The rich are not like you and me. Did you fly private to summer camp?

Each year, the very richest in our society quorum at this lodge for a conference thrown by the secretive investment firm Allen & Company to strike deals. (This is where Jeff Bezos decided to buy the Washington Post and where Disney hatched a plan to gobble up ABC.) They are the media tycoons — the men who control what and how you read, watch, and click — and the men who finance those men. (They are, in fact, almost all men.) And here, for one amusing week, they pretend as though they aren’t so different.

It’s a kind of theater. The costumes are militantly casual. They dispense with their suits and dress in blue jeans, baseball caps, beat-up kicks. But wait, don’t those John Lobb sneakers cost $780? They leave most of their toys at home (no to the chief of staff and army of lawyers; yes to the Gulfstream), bringing other props instead (wives, kids, labradors). It’s just like a regular summer camping trip! Except the local girls they hire to babysit have to sign NDAs. Hey, look, Henry “Barbarians at the Gate” Kravis has just arrived and he’s unloading his own luggage from the back of his SUV. No staff? No problem. (Rupert Murdoch arrived the night before; Elon Musk is expected to show before the end of the week.)

The reporters — there are just a few of us — stay behind a short fence, watching as the Chevy Suburbans pull up to deposit their vested cargo. One by one, the titans climb out. There’s Brian Roberts, CEO of Comcast, and his NBC chief, Jeff Shell. There’s Warren Buffett in a hideous acid-yellow shirt and Jeffrey Katzenberg. This driveway is the stage upon which a mogul may perform, should he wish. Most don’t want to play and dart straight inside the refuge of the lobby.

But not David Zaslav. He’s not the biggest kid on the block, but ever since he became the boss of Warner Bros., HBO, and CNN, he’s been having a ball. Last year’s conference, which took place right as he was conquering those properties, might have been more fun because right now he’s got to focus on aggressively paying down the debt of his conglomerate, and sweeping layoffs are expected. (Thirty percent has been the number floating around.) Still, he’s ebullient as he greets Home Depot’s founding financier Ken Langone before the cameras, pulling him in for a hug and a peck on the cheek. Zaslav steps up to the reporter’s pen. “Welcome to Sun Valley,” he says, flashing his gleaming chompers.

I ask if he’s worried that CNN’s ratings continued to dip in June despite the January 6 hearings, which provided a bump but should have been like crack for its viewers. “I think Chris is doing a great job pivoting CNN,” he replies, referring to Chris Licht, his newly installed viceroy at Hudson Yards. “Journalism first. America needs a news network where everybody can come and be heard: Republicans, Democrats. I think you’re seeing more of that at CNN. I think it’s the greatest news brand in the world with the greatest journalists. And we’re going to lean into that. We’re not going to look at the ratings and, in the long run, it’s going to be worth more.” Next question: Isn’t it interesting how Netflix, which made binge-watching part of its core DNA, has just experimented with its most cherished brand, Stranger Things, by dripping out episodes? Doesn’t that seem like a pivot to the kind of appointment television that Zaslav’s HBO still does? “I think we’re all going to experiment,” he says. “Stranger Things is a great, terrific show, and Netflix is a great company — Reed and Ted. I think if we do quality content that people love — we’ve got to create more content that people will pay for before they’ll pay for dinner or they’ll rush home to see.”

“Reed and Ted,” as in Netflix co-CEOs Reed Hastings and Ted Sarandos, were just here in the driveway a moment before. In this year’s theater of Sun Valley, they constitute one of the juiciest acts. Hollywood has been feeling Schadenfreude watching them squirm while Netflix’s stock is in free fall. The culture at their company is famously machiavellian, and some wonder if one won’t attempt to throw the other overboard. And so, they pointedly tune out our shouts as they hop into an SUV together and later take a walk across the grounds.

Another vaudevillian sight is the dance between Disney’s two Bobs, Iger and Chapek; both are here but definitely not together. Handsome and charming, Iger was the Disney CEO who took a while to get off the stage and failed to groom a successor. Now, he watches as Chapek hurdles from crisis to crisis. The new Bob gave Burbank the vapors last month when he guillotined beloved executive Peter Rice without offering him a cushy landing pad, which is not a very Hollywood thing to do, thank you very much. This week, Iger inked a deal with Random House for a book in which he will “discuss how to be an effective leader.” He’s all smiles as he heads to lunch with Brian Grazer and shouts to us, “I’m just here enjoying myself this year!” Yeah, I bet. 

Meanwhile, when Chapek steps out of the lodge a few minutes later, alone, none of us notice because he looks like just another bald white guy in a mask. (The lodge is situated by Bald Mountain and Dollar Mountain, which seems fitting.) By the time he gets to the bushes and de-masks, we realize who he is, but it’s too late. There are rules. Strict ones. We aren’t allowed to chase. Kids are off-limits. And we can’t pump any of the grounds staff for information. (When a woman in a wheelchair without credentials pleads to use the bathroom of the adjacent hotel building, an Allen & Co. enforcer barks and sends her rolling away.) But Chapek should be feeling good because last week Disney’s board unanimously voted to re-up his contract for the next three years. Besides, didn’t Iger already write that book?

One media CEO tells me this is by far his favorite conference, much better than Davos, because those other shindigs devolve into flashy circuses and party central. Here, people come hungry to negotiate. Trade reporters thirst for any little scraplet of news that might come out of the meetings. But each year it gets harder to report on, as journalists are repelled farther from the lodge. (Back in the day, reporters were free to enter and loiter in the lobby bar.)

I ask Shari Redstone if she has a minute but she blows me off and says she needs to get a coffee. She’s one of the few women in attendance. Sheryl Sandberg is here, too, but professionally she’s about to be standing in the unemployment line just behind Iger. The funniest moments are when somebody — or rather, nobody — steps out of the car and the cameramen sigh in unison because he isn’t important enough to photograph. This happens when a co-founder of Groupon arrives. “He’s a third-tier CEO,” sniffs one of the photographers. Another zooms in with his camera on the nametag of an unrecognizable white man and we see it says “C H R I S M C K O W N.” We all quickly Google him and then turn our backs.

Greg Maffei and his dogs arrive. Photo: Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images

Greg Maffei, Liberty Media boss and Zaslav pal, pulls up in a GMC and asks us to keep an eye on his dogs in the back seat. He tells me he doesn’t have time to answer any questions and then says hello to Andrew Ross Sorkin of the New York Times, who has just arrived as a guest. The titans tolerate Ross Sorkin because he reminds them of their own sons, except he actually does what they tell him. Other journalists who walk among the billionaires include Anderson Cooper, Evan Osnos of The New Yorker, and, for the first time this year, Bari Weiss. There is also the former journalist turned NYPD top cop John Miller — seen grazing with Grazer and Iger — and top spook Bill Burns.

A local couple who live down off the mountain, near Hemingway’s gravesite, tell me the townsfolk are just as confused and intrigued as anyone about what the moguls actually get up to in this lodge. As Hemingway wrote about the leopard in The Snows of Kilimanjaro, no one has explained what they are seeking at this altitude.

Among the Media Billionaires in Sun Valley