For one day, the world's richest people yield the floor to reporters
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OMAHA — New York Times financial columnist Andrew Ross Sorkin found himself sorting through printouts of more than 1,000 emails on a floor back home, he said, trying to put them into obvious categories.
What was Warren Buffett's take on active or passive investing? His views on President Trump? What about the scandal at Wells Fargo, where Buffett has a big stake? What about his investing in three billionaire Brazilians who have brought huge layoffs to consumer product giants Anheuser Busch, H.J. Heinz and Kraft?
They were among the themes coursing through emails solicited by Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway company before its annual shareholders meeting on Saturday that was part revival meeting, county fair, global pilgrimage for investors and an unavoidable lure for the financial press.
Packing a big downtown sports arena, the session is a rare example of democratic corporate governance. And reporters are center stage (well, stage left, actually) as filters for hours of questions hurled at Berkshire Hathaway's candid, always entertaining iconic leaders, Buffett, 86, and Charles Munger, 93.
"A remarkable event," said Sorkin, who multitasks as a CNBC regular and co-creator of Showtime's "Billions," a drama about hedge funds and prosecutors.
He sat with journalists Becky Quick of CNBC and Carol Loomis, a retired Fortune reporter and a very sympathetic Buffett chronicler. The other side revealed three similarly pre-picked financial analysts but with carte blanche, too.
They'd each get six questions, none pre-vetted, during a daylong inquisitional marathon that few, if any, corporate chiefs would submit to.
There'd be 54 questions in all from press, analysts and shareholders in the arena over about five hours (there is no legal obligation to even let press into an annual meetings, unless they happen to be shareholders).
Did Berkshire err by not investing in the coming technology revolution other than a dubious one so far in IBM and a belated recent one in Apple? Who'll succeed them? Will self-driving cars hurt business at Geico by cutting down on accidents? Does declining use of coal mean less business for giant BNSF Railway? And what to do with the nearly $100 billion of cash they've got on hand?
Per usual, they were willing to confront the spontaneous. That's rare in a corporate universe that disdains surprises, especially at shareholder meetings, and where corporate spokespeople routinely seek to shape stories in advance.
When it comes to annual meetings, some companies won't allow the press in. It's part of the fear most CEOs and their large publicity operations have in dealing with the outside world (all the more so in an age of social media).
Yup, they made a mistake not investing in Google, said Munger, chomping on peanut brittle from See's Candies (which they bought in 1972) and chugging Diet Cokes, while Buffett did same but with regular Coke (they own just over 9 percent of the company).
"I was too dumb to realize that was going to happen," Buffett said of Amazon, whose founder Jeff Bezos he always admired. "I admired him but I didn't think he could succeed on the scale that he has."
The journalists are largely conduits for the shareholder questions they'd selected. But it remains impressive. Buffett would do more with CNBC Sunday (perhaps others, since Charlie Rose was sitting right up front with directors and family, including Bill Gates).
But one seeming omission: No questions on President Trump. When I saw Sorkin Saturday evening, he said it would have been a wasted query. Buffett and Munger are too adroit and would have ducked any substantive assessment.
You can't go to the gathering and not be impressed, all the more so with Berkshire acolytes, young and old, from all over the world. For a weekend, Omaha becomes Mecca for them. Business students and investors come from China, Australia, Brazil and Scandinavia to soak up insights from two great pragmatists — and shoot the breeze with counterparts.
Corporate governance expert Nell Minow put it this way: "As many companies are trying to hide from their shareholders with 'virtual meetings' and the proposed and oxymoronically named 'CHOICE Act,' it is always heartening to see that in this way as in so many others, Berkshire is an exemplar of what an annual meeting should be, a chance for a candid conversation with the people running the company on behalf of the shareholders."
And that includes the press.
It's not written about as often as it might be, but broadcast TV's business model is very much challenged. So Tribune Media, which has had some rough years, solicited bids and it appears the winner is Maryland-based Sinclair, an ideologically conservative operator, at a price of about $4 billion.
This would have once been a very big story. Sinclair becomes much bigger, but it's unclear how consequential this will be. If the deal goes through, Sinclair sharply boosts its number of Fox affiliates but will add a ton of debt and would probably have to divest itself of some stations (due to federal rules). It had best hope the economy doesn't head south.
"Sinclair has 173 stations in 81 markets, including affiliations with Fox, ABC, CBS and NBC, and reaches 24 percent of U.S. TV homes with the UHF discount reinstated. Tribune has 42 stations reaching 26 percent." (Bloomberg) Sinclair would also get the cable WGN America network, which has product "Salem" and other shows, and Tribune's minority stake in the Food Network of which it was a co-founder.
Graphic of the weekend
It was found Friday in the financial section of the Omaha World-Herald and involved the evolving value of a Class A share of Berkshire Hathaway.
In 1968, it was $38, or 76 Big Macs at 49 cents apiece.
Of late, it's $248,000, or four years of tuition, books, room and board at Harvard.
No hint of ambiguity about Obama author
Historian-author David Garrow has a new and very long book about former President Obama that was not treated well by The New York Times in a Michiko Kukutani review.
Now comes David Maraniss, the journalist-historian and author of his own Obama biography, who tweeted, "Will say this once only. David Garrow, author of new Obama bio, was vile, undercutting, ignoble competitor unlike any I've encountered." (@davidmaraniss)
Trump's assist to the hyperpartisan left
"The U.S. election and its surprise victory for Donald Trump have helped propel liberal hyperpartisan Facebook pages and websites to new traffic and revenue heights. But with success has come increased tensions, lawsuits and other messy disputes." (BuzzFeed)
"Court filings reviewed by BuzzFeed News, in addition to interviews with writers and owners of liberal websites, paint a picture of an increasingly lucrative business that has become a battlefield of lawsuits, doxxing, hijacked Facebook pages, and accusations of unfair labor practices and stolen content."
What's the bottom line? "Scratch the surface of the lawsuits and disputes and it comes down to two key things: money, and the massive Facebook pages that determine how much of it you can earn."
In and out at HuffPost
As Ryan Grim exits as Washington bureau chief apparently to head to The Intercept, Jim Rich, who had a fleeting and uneven tenure as editor of the New York Daily News, will be executive editor there.
At the Daily News, Rich helped oversee a joint Daily News-ProPublica police investigation that won a Pulitzer Prize. (Poynter) He's not deemed a nuts-and-bolts guy but stronger with setting overall tone, and surely fits any Trump-wary thrust.
Another parting at Ebony
Desiree Rogers has had a notable few years in the labor market. She had a very short-lived tenure as White House social secretary before her old Chicago buds, the Obamas, decided to make a change.
Now she's leaving as CEO of Johnson Publishing as chairman Linda Johnson Rice, who inherited the once-thriving and editorially vital empire from her late dad, will take both titles at the former longtime publisher parent of Ebony and Jet magazines.
The magazines' operations are leaving their longtime home, with all its employees shown the door, after a Texas investment firm bought them and plans a move to California.
Rogers led the company's cosmetic unit and will head off by June 2. (Crain's)
"I don't know where to start"
Melissa Lyttle, president of the National Press Photographers Association, writes:
"Google 'Souvid Datta' now and it won’t be his many awards, grants and contest-worthy stories that come up first. It’s going to be how he went down in flames. The first few pages of search results will include accusations that he’s a liar, a thief and untrustworthy. All things his name should be synonymous with, given his admitted actions." (NPPA)
"First, there was the child sex slave he photographed allegedly being raped, who he labeled a prostitute in the caption. Then there was LensCulture using that image as a call for entries for a photo contest."
"This was widely pointed out on social media as the 'commodification of rape,' but the outrage wasn’t there initially. LensCulture has since issued an apology for using the photo which they took down several hours after posting it on Facebook. In their statement, they said 'We condemn the lack of ethical standards used to create the photograph in question.'"
She concludes, "Moving forward, the stain he’s left on this profession and the depth of his journalistic transgressions should bar his work from any publication that claims to have integrity — and hopefully serve as a lesson to others as exactly what not to do."
"Track and Fear"
ESPN's "Outside the Lines" offers a very disturbing chronicle of a University of Arizona track coach's outrageous harassment of one of his athletes, including apparently forcing her to have sex with him and threatening to kill her when she started resisting. It's graphic. If true, the university's apparent passivity is shameful.
Charles Peters, founder of The Washington Monthly, has a book out and The Washington Post's David Ignatius praises it to the hilt. Ignatius inadvertently offers what should be a cautionary note to the Obamas as he underscores how Peters chides the Clintons for losing touch with ordinary folks after leaving the White House and enriching themselves. (The Washington Post)
Smerconish and the left
Kudos to CNN's Michael Smerconish for a Saturday evening critique of the left from the left, chiding comic Stephen Colbert and Democrats for getting too down, dirty and even infantile in going after Donald Trump. (CNN)
Headline of day
"In a Beijing ballroom, Kushner family pushes $500,000 ‘investor visa’ to wealthy Chinese." (The Washington Post)
Reporter wins prize
Ellen Barry, a very good reporter and writer, takes home the 2017 Osborn Elliott Prize for excellence in journalism on Asia for a series on women in India's economy and society. The winning entry includes this superb story.
The morning babble
Russia, Russia, Russia. CNN's "New Day" said former Acting Attorney General Sally Yates will contradict the White House on matters related to Russian influence and the Michael Flynn matter. David Gregory feels this is all "on the margins" and we know the essence of the tales.
Healthcare, healthcare, healthcare. "Obamacare is dead," said Steve Doocy on "Fox & Friends," with its focus on those potentially recalcitrant Republican senators who might not heed the just-passed House legislation.
Vive la France! "Morning Joe" went thankfully global, or French, heralding the election there and making it in part a rejection of Russia President Vladimir Putin's "foreign meddling."
That's a thesis put forth by co-host Joe Scarborough in a Washington Post op-ed read aloud by Mika Brzezinski (call it a quasi trial run for their wedding vows). But, speaking of their engagement, "Saturday Night Live" had fun with it. (USA Today)
Meanwhile, Scarborough ramped his up critique of his former Republican soulmates on the healthcare bill, deeming it a future political disaster for screwing the poor, aiding the rich and portending midterm election doom in 2018.