Debriefing Davos

Inside the Congress Center
Inside the main conference center, where WEF delegates network, charm, and influence the world.

The residents of the Swiss resort town of Davos understand the situation brought upon them by the World Economic Forum, and its annual meeting.  Some delegates to the annual meeting seem oblivious to the Swiss everyday life which continues outside the security checkpoints, and between the carefully-planned events at various hotels, restaurants, and private venues which dominate this week in January.  The WEF delegates are arguably some of the most powerful people in business, politics, and non-profit activism.  On the snow-covered sidewalks of Davos it is not uncommon to see well-dressed men and women window shopping, or carefully trekking to a high-end restaurant.  Many take up the whole sidewalk–the locals, and I, tended to walk for a time in the street to avoid a clash of civilizations.

Davos is not a helpless village overrun by the world’s wealthiest, defenseless against the “bling” flashed unnecessarily.  It is a resort town.  It thrives off wealthy skiers and vacationers.  It is expanding its already respectable five-star hotel offerings because the people keep coming.  But the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum takes this show of class-status to another level.  As with many topics my role as journalist lets me, very literally, walk between the worlds of überwealthy delegates and regular folks on the street.  I might be dressed in a nice (for a journalist) suit, but I still hand my grocery store membership card to the surprised cashier, and I say hello to the locals beginning to step toward the street as I navigate the sidewalks.  And then I go through security, and peer into an exclusive networking event, where decisions which affect the world could be made over orange juice and free magazines.

This post is not an exposé of any kind, because I have no secrets to tell.  Despite getting to glimpse inside the conference center, and roam the hallways occupied by the New York Times’ Thomas Friedman (he declined to speak with me, saying he had to write a column…. …) or Ohio Governor John Kasich (he did speak with me, and the tape made it to Ohio public radio by lunchtime!), but I am still just a low-level journalist.  I had a technician badge which barely got me past the first level of security.  Fully-accredited journalists are given a little more freedom to move and schmooze, but only the upper-echelon gets the true access.  People like CNBC’s Maria Bartiromo or CNN’s Fareed Zakaria are the journalists attending the after-parties, and are privy to some of the choicest decisions being mulled over by the elite.

Decisions are made in Davos, occasionally.  Some reports say the idea for 3G cell phone networks spawned out of an impromptu telecommunications summit at Davos one year.  But for all that can be done, there is much that can’t.  The events of the so-called “Arab Spring” caught many delegates in Davos off-guard (as it, arguable, did the rest of the world), and thus the discussions of the Middle East had to hastily turn to news which was still organic, and unknowable.

One should also ask what value the public gets from journalistic treatment of such a networking event as the WEF annual meeting.  On one level, the show in Davos is just a show; a chance for some to reiterate talking points, or give general responses to real-world problems.  Why should journalists stand by and give more attention than might be deserved?

The journalistic answer would be: because these are, in fact, really important people.  In journalism 101 we learn what makes a story news, and an event involving noteworthy celebrities or decision-makers is one of the categories. (Stories involving education, public money, scandal also make the list, and could make fine Davos news.)  When the heads of corporations speak, markets can be influenced and billions can be made or lost.  When heads of state meet, the citizens/voters deserve to know what happened.  When Malaria vaccines are launched, or $700 million donations are given, people might want to find out more.  And Davos does provide a space to get many important people to comment on an issue, all in a short period of time.

The non-journalistic answer would be: because the other guy is there.  Media outlets like CNBC are highly-invested in Davos, meaning CNN must be highly-invested, and the same goes for Russian TV rivals, or South Korean, or any country.  Reuters is there, so the AP has to be there, so AFP is there.  Yes, news is being made at the annual meeting, but I am not sure enough is happening to warrant the network-logo-jacket-wearing gangs which often can be seen claiming the territory of Davos sidewalks and restaurant space.

I might never go to Davos for this meeting again.  It is a rare assignment to be sent to the Swiss Alps to report on what is said by famous folks in between their partying.  And the outlets for which I have worked–non-finance news focused public media–don’t tend to send reporters like me to events like that.  But I am proud of the coverage my colleague and I produced this year.  Our focus was clear, and our standards were high.  I am particularly proud of the final piece we did, looking at the “gender gap.” It was an example of a segment produced because we noticed something not being addressed as much as it probably should, so we spoke to folks and shined a light on the issue.

I would like more media outlets to aim higher at events like that in Davos.  The lowest-hanging fruit is, by definition, the easiest story to produce–he said, she said, background.  But tougher questions can be asked, and better answers sought, if more journalists and crews abstain from the cocktail parties and accept that being a journalist at Davos is not the same as being a WEF delegate in Davos.  Be polite, be respectful, but do the job, and help your audience learn something.  This is advice which stands in or outside of Davos.

Full Disclosure:  I did not attend any Davos parties.  And that’s okay.

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