Say Nothing

Top to bottom, Harvey Weinstein, Rupert Murdoch, and Barry Diller.Photo: AP Photos

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

Still, I believe I can fairly discuss the mogul participants – a top-drawergroup including Michael Bloomberg, Rupert Murdoch, Barry Diller, Steve Case,Michael Powell, Sir Howard Stringer, Arthur Sulzberger Jr., HarveyWeinstein, and the Robertses, father and son – who are identified on theconference’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 discusswhat was not said, and even attribute what wasn’t said to who shouldhave said it.

The three-day, $4,400 conference, called Foursquare, was produced by theQuadrangle Group and held at the grand ballroom of the Regent Hotel on WallStreet. Quadrangle is an investment fund specializing in media properties,run by Steven Rattner, who, through much of the nineties at LazardFrères, was one of the best-known bankers in the media business (beforethat, he was a New York Times reporter; a big part of his portfoliois a close friendship with Times chairman Sulzberger). Rattner, alsoa major Democratic Party supporter who had been on the short-list for aCabinet post in a Gore administration (while the conference proceeded, theDemocrats were again being defeated), put together his media fund just asthe 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 thebottom (like Herb Allen’s Sun Valley gathering, it’s a brand-buildingthing).

The conference was directed by John Battelle, who ran the now-defunctInternet-business magazine The Industry Standard, and John Heilemann,a business and political journalist. Battelle and Heilemann recruited theirjournalist friends – Ken Auletta, Charlie Rose, Kurt Andersen, ForrestSawyer, 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 withouta scintilla of remuneration (we were not even proffered the conference swagbag) – is not exactly clear. Except, of course, that we all craveacceptance and proximity – and what’s more, do not want it to appear thatwe were not invited.

It was, likewise, hard to figure out what dreweverybody else here. After all, nobody is going to conferencesanymore. Conferences – people paying lots of money to go to a rarefiedsetting where they can meet people who are better than they are – are partof the ever-receding boom culture.

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

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

It was the facelessness and unresponsiveness and steadfastness of this lastgroup that provided an unexpected “What, me worry?” vibe: Nobody seemedangry, or out of sorts, or eager to lay blame. Sangfroid ruled.

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

The opposite, and hardly extreme, position – that the U.S. media businessis in about the same fix as the Japanese banking system – was not at allpart of the discussion. This wasn’t, of course, surprising or illogical: Ifthere was such a crisis, then the people here – both on the stage and inthe audience – would have been the people who created it. It was thereforenot likely that they would now be confessing guilt, or proposing radicaloverthrow.

There was really hardly any need for a gag order – everyone was mum, orsaccharine.

Charlie Rose interviewed former media mogulMayor Bloomberg, who was in fine and convivial form – possibly relieved tono longer have to talk about the media business (the city budget crisisnotwithstanding).

The New Yorker’s Ken Auletta politely and damningly interviewed astubbornly unflappable Steve Case. This is what the AOL Time Warner chairmandid not say: He did not say what he does with his day; he did not saywhether he thought he bore any singular responsibility for what has happenedat AOL Time Warner; he did not say why he should still have a job; he didnot 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 wasnot to be a big thinker anymore, not to be a visionary. They were theones who got us into trouble. Don’t blame us.

John Doerr, the venture capitalist, and James Barksdale, the former CEO ofNetscape, did not say whether they believed the failure of the Internetimpacted 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-kissingbook about the entertainment economy that I am frequently credited – ordiscredited – with writing, interviewed FCC chairman Michael Powell(getting to interview Powell was a perk of McKinsey’s being one of theconference’s paying sponsors). Chairman Powell, looking especially inflatedand self-satisfied, managed to avoid discussing the sense or reasonablenessor economic efficacy of a generation of massive consolidation in the mediaand communications business.

The panel on advertising did not ask what happens to the media business if,as almost everyone expects, consumer advertising continues an inexorableprocess 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 stoppirating – as now seems the more reasonable scenario than either lawsuitsstopping them or everybody’s children at the conference suddenly starting topay their parents’ companies for what they’ve been downloading free.

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

Barry Diller, coy and charming, did not outline his plot to take overVivendi’s American enterprises or say if he thought Jean-Marie Messier wasone of the great knuckleheads of the age.

I had my own failures at prompting any public introspection or expiation. Imoderated a panel called “The Burdens of Scale” with AOL Time Warner’s JeffBewkes, News Corp.’s Peter Chernin, and Yahoo!’s Terry Semel, and tried tosuggest that there probably wasn’t that much difference between, say,Messier, Jerry Levin, Bob Pittman, Thomas Middelhoff, and most otherseemingly successful media executives. But nobody fell on his sword. Now,possibly, it was pure obliviousness that was being articulated here. Butthen again, maybe it was a new philosophy in the media world: The smartestthing 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 justtaking it one day at a time. So don’t blame us.

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

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

The main conference dinner at the Museum of theAmerican Indian was an awkward situation because the relative hoi polloi ofthe event (including many people who, I suppose, paid the full $4,400) wereled one way, and a more exalted 50 or so (few of whom, I suspect, werepaying 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 allthe interlocutors were invited, but as I walked toward the dining room withNewsweek’s Steven Levy, who had moderated a technology panel, he wassuddenly intercepted and led away by formidable factotums). Here I was, forwhatever reason, elevated from the peanut gallery to the skyboxes of theEstablishment, suddenly cheek-by-jowl with at least half a dozen people I’dwritten about more or less intemperately (I’d quote the impish zinger BarryDiller aimed at me if I were allowed). It’s a great country, Icouldn’t help thinking, Fox or not.

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

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

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

Everybody was very earnest. It was like a book-club meeting or a reallypainful wedding. I wasn’t any less self-serious, finding myself suddenly,helplessly, from some deep wellspring of social animus and fauxpas–ism, telling these people that the next big thing was that wewould all soon find out how unhappy everybody is in the media business. Thatnobody 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 abigness-induced psychosis, as well as by the ever-growing pressure and surefutility 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 thateverybody was so relieved to be here (Martha was a no-show, and Jean-MarieMessier, one of the early conference headliners, had, I assumed, discreetlysent his regrets), to still be able to be here, that they seemedwilling to overlook my bad manners as well as the sorry state of our world.

I could be invited back, even.

Say Nothing