Davos for Beginners

The “Newcomers’ Guide to the Annual Meeting 2002” kindly supplied by the World Economic Forum—aka “Davos”—is written in Globolog, the international language of self-regard, which is similar to English as translated from the original Japanese (perhaps by a European Union functionary in Brussels). “Please note: Sign-up cancellation is not possible. This can only be done at Sign-up Desks.” It is impossible, but it can be done—at the appropriate desk. That’s the spirit! If we all just put on gray suits and wander the hallways of the Waldorf-Astoria hotel in New York trying to look like the finance minister of Peru … why, there’s nothing we cannot achieve. We can even “define, discuss and advance key issues on the global agenda.”

When an organization parades under a slogan as magnificently banal as “Committed to Improving the State of the World,” it is only natural to suspect that something less wholesome is going on. And when important-looking people from around the world gather on a mountaintop in Switzerland—or, this year, in the landscape of police barriers and checkpoints that ordinarily is Midtown Manhattan—to indulge in “plenary sessions” and other mystic rituals, it is easy enough to believe that this is indeed where the “rich and powerful” come to plot the fate of civilization.

Both the promoters and the critics of Davos are heavily invested in the idea that it is the Central Committee of the Universe. The promoters face the tricky challenge of pooh-poohing this myth without actually undermining it. Fortunately, Globolog is the perfect language for those special moments when you want to be earnest but unconvincing. Elitist? Nonsense: “The World Economic Forum has a long-standing policy of inclusion when it comes to non-government organizations and representatives of civil society, and is working to increase participation within these constituencies.”

Yet the Newcomers’ Guide is about as frank as Globolog can get about the real purpose of Davos: “Members contribute to the Forum’s mission of improving the state of the world while benefiting from unique networking opportunities with other world leaders.” One brilliant word transforms this sentence from mundane sales pitch to … really great sales pitch. That word, of course, is “other.” There are some actual world leaders at Davos, but for most participants it is world leader fantasy camp (like the ones where baseball fanatics pay to attend a mock spring training with actual baseball has-beens). Bring plenty of business cards, the Guide advises, “as people often find that they lack sufficient supply.” But do real world leaders hand out business cards? (“John Paul II. Pope.”)

“There are many possibilities to make yourself available to the media,” breathes the Newcomers’ Guide, pornographically. And for something a bit kinkier, there’s the Garbo option: “Participants may inform the Forum’s Media Team that they do not want to have contact with the media. Accordingly, no press conferences, interview requests or personal contact details will be given to journalists.”

Journalists are like a drug. Davos invites more of us each year and gets more big-deal treatment as a result. But there’s a media equivalent of Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle (which holds that the process of observing a scientific experiment can affect the result—or something like that): The more journalists you have hanging around and reporting that Davos is a secret confab of terribly important people, the less true it is. When the media reach a certain critical mass, they start mostly covering themselves.

Allow me to demonstrate.

The Newcomers’ Guide is at its most Globologic in the section about the media. The anguish of needing while fearing journalists seeks relief in a comic frenzy of status distinctions. There are “two different types of journalists,” the Guide explains. Print and broadcast? Good and evil? No, “Media Fellows and Reporting Press.” Except for a Scarlet M, Media Fellows get treated as if they were real people. “They wear white badges on which ‘media’ is written and have full participant status.”

But longtime white badges shouldn’t feel too smug. The Guide continues mysteriously, “This year a revised and greatly improved group of Media Fellows and opinion-makers will be present at the Annual Meeting.” It is not clear from this whether the individual Media Fellows have greatly improved or whether the selection process has improved to produce a better class of Fellows, but either interpretation is a pretty brutal insult to anyone who has been a Media Fellow before this year. Some of these folks have plenaried their little hearts out year after year to improve the state of the world, and this is the thanks they get?

Still, it could be worse. At least they’re not Reporting Press. The Guide is witheringly dismissive. “Familiarly called ‘Orange Badges’ because of the colour of their badges”—thanks for that explanation, buddy—”are reporters who have limited access to the Meeting.” Limited access, the Guide explains, means “they will not have access to … the Meeting venue.” In other words they can’t enter the building, but they’re welcome to hang out with their own caste in a “Media Centre” across the street.

As a fellow journalist, I wish to express solidarity with these downtrodden members of my profession. Under our badges, are we not all the same? Has not an Orange Badge eyes? Ears, business cards, sources, a laptop computer? If you cut his piece, does he not whine?

Of course I have a white badge. The canons of journalistic ethics compel me to make this information available to you, the reader. Otherwise I wouldn’t mention it since I don’t care about such distinctions myself.