Sun Valley: David Carr’s advice for reporters

July 8, 2009

The Bald Mountain resort in Sun Valley offers moguls for advanced skiers all winter long. Media reporters show up every July for the other kind of mogul, who lands among the picturesque Idaho mountains on a private jet and has a name like “Rupert Murdoch” or “Barry Diller.”

Reporters are supposed to be part of the scenery — not part of the conference itself.* They must stand around and hope that one of the more than 200 invitees decides to speak to them, and hopefully dispense a few nuggets of news. Fortunately, this week’s weather is supposed to be sunny, dry and warm during the day, and comfortably chilly at night.

For a Sun Valley freshman like this Reuters reporter, it sounds scary terrifying, despite the clement weather forecast. I asked New York Times media columnist David Carr, who covered the conference in 2007, for some advice. Here are some excerpts from our phone conversation;

Why did you go to the Sun Valley conference?

I was sent because (NYT deals columnist) Andrew Ross Sorkin was getting married. I was actually on vacation at the time, (but) Andrew is somebody at the paper who, whatever he asks for, we have to do. I was actually happy to step into the breach.

What kind of reporting do you do?

You’re arguing over real table scraps and taking deep meaning from people sitting physically
adjacent to each other by the duck pond, but you can’t hear what they say… I got a big get. I saw Rupert Murdoch in a parking lot walking and talking to somebody. I can’t remember who he was talking to, but that constitutes a huge get in the context of Sun Valley. (Was it CNN’s Anderson Cooper? We don’t know.)

Where does a reporter fit in to the Sun Valley pecking order?

Your status there is non-status. When people say you spend your time jumping out of the bushes, they’re not kidding. … You’re all confronted by the same miserable circumstances. … The Allen people make it clear that no accommodation at all will be made, and that you are not invited. They’re not nasty about it, they’re not pernicious about it, but they’re very clear about it. (Read about Carr’s close-up shot with a burly security guard if you want proof.)

How do you make news there?

At Sun Valley, you’re more or less handed some lint balls, a couple of twigs and some rocks and told to make a narrative out of that. It can get ugly and it can lead to some fatuous journalism. … If you’re willing to leave your dignity at the door, keep your expectations under control and make sure to manage your editor’s expectations, you’re going to get your moguls in frolic. There’s worse things than that.

We’re not above asking for some avuncular, reporterly advice about how to handle Sun Valley. Leave your comments here!

* Some journalists do get invited, and this year’s elite include CNBC anchorwoman Erin Burnett, interviewer of the high-and-mighty Charlie Rose, New Yorker media writer Ken Auletta, longtime NBC news anchorman Tom Brokaw, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, Huffington Post Senior Editor Willow Bay¬†and Washington Post columnist David Ignatius.

(Photo: The sign says it all for reporters and photographers covering last year’s Sun Valley media and tech conference. Reuters/Rick Wilking)

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