SUN VALLEY, Idaho — It should have been a glorious time for the tech and media honchos who gathered here last week at this posh mountain resort.
The nation is recovering from a horrible pandemic, which they helped us survive. Recall how Netflix binging made the lockdowns almost bearable. Amazon helped us to eat when we were too afraid to risk COVID by venturing inside a supermarket.
Because of this success, investors continue to reward the moguls with ever higher stock prices that have sent their already insane net worth even higher.
So everyone here should have been happy, right?
Yes, but my gut tells me they weren’t. There was a foreboding mood that seemed to ooze through the fake smiles of the billionaires as they deplaned their carbon-emitting private jets and took their motorcades to attend the annual media and tech conference sponsored by boutique investment bank Allen & Co.
You could see it in the hostility of the rent-a-cop crew hired to help protect the honchos — mainly from reporters begging for scraps of information about what was going on inside the conference, which was closed off to everyone except the billionaires and some select reporters from CNN and CNBC.
The security here, some of whom in the past have been moonlighting New York City cops, can be foreboding. I’ve likened them to aggressive bouncers keeping order at a party in the Hamptons. Since I’m old enough to remember, they also remind me of the cranky dudes outside the old Studio 54, who busted up fights and decided who could enter the swanky nightclub during its disco heyday.
I don’t want to diminish the job they have to do. Protecting billionaires from possible bad guys disguised as nerdy reporters is difficult work. But this year their tactics seemed excessive even by their historical standards. Guards prevented reporters from asking the CEOs even the most benign questions. In one instance security was quick to step in and shut down my Fox Business camera crew because we might intimidate some of the CEOs with our mere presence near the conference center.
What did the richest, most powerful people in media and tech have to worry about? Here’s my theory: The contingent of billionaires navel-gazing here really weren’t too stoked about the conference agenda of woke corporate issues — criminal-justice reform and climate control, the latter courtesy of a seminar led by Bill Gates, who presumably also flew here in his carbon-emitting private jet.
Nor were they all that consumed by dealmaking, which is the real purpose of throwing a bunch of bankers and CEOs together in the same room. Instead, top of mind for them was the fear of what’s happening in DC. They knew that for all their power, their world is about to be turned upside down by a bunch of bureaucrats who make no more than $180,000 year and now want to make their lives miserable.
As this column goes to press, the Biden administration is on the verge of appointing its next Department of Justice antitrust chief — who, if past actions mean anything, will want to break up Amazon and Google, and make dealmaking for media giants like Comcast nearly impossible. That’s on top of a slew of appointees who see targets instead of billionaires when they hear the words “Sun Valley.”
Of course, former President Donald Trump wasn’t exactly best buds with media and tech guys. In 2018, just as the conference was underway, his DOJ filed an appeal to prevent the AT&T-Time Warner merger. Trump failed in court, but the deal recently blew up on its own with AT&T spinning off the media assets including CNN in a deal that creates a new company with Discovery’s David Zaslav at the helm.
But Trump’s trust busting was more personal than ideological. He hated CNN for its allegedly one-sided coverage of his administration. Likewise, he wanted to stick it to Amazon founder “Jeff Bozo” because of Bezos’ ownership of the Trump-unfriendly Washington Post.
Still, Trump and his free-market-oriented regulators never challenged Amazon’s dominance of e-commerce, nor Facebook’s and Twitter’s dominance of social media. Even his suit against Google’s dominance of search just before the 2020 election seemed more like a rush job to score political points than a true threat to the company’s business model.
Not so from the crew assembled by the Biden people aimed at Big Business. Lina Khan, the new head of the Federal Trade Commission, for instance, wrote a Law Review treatise about breaking up Amazon.
It’s enough to ruin any billionaire’s Idaho getaway.