Executive Times






2005 Book Reviews


Media Man: Ted Turner’s Improbable Empire by Ken Auletta



Rating: (Mildly Recommended)




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Ken Auletta’s recent biography, Media Man: Ted Turner’s Improbable Empire, presents multiple dimensions of a complicated personality. While repetitive at times, and less lively than the subject, Media Man offers readers glimpses of the creativity, passion, and character of Ted Turner. With more ups and downs than a roller coaster, Turner copes with a topsy turvey world by moving forward at every juncture. Here’s an excerpt, all of Chapter 5, “A Billionaire Jeremiah,” pp. 82-87:


With McGuirk running Turner Broadcasting day to day, Turner had more time. And, with Time Warner’s stock price soaring—Turner’s shares doubled in value the first year—he also had more money. Turner would forge a new identity for himself as a philanthropist. “I want to be the Jimmy Cricket for America,” he said.


In September of 1997, he was to be honored by the United Nations Association-USA, and he had the idea of giving a billion dollars—then a third of his wealth—to the UN. The Turners were flying to New York on their private plane when Ted told his wife what he planned. “I was extremely moved,” Jane Fonda said, adding that she told her husband, “Don’t you think you should talk to your lawyers first?” He did, and learned that he could not make the gift directly to the UN.


The next day, as UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan recalled, Turner walked into Annan’s office and blurted, “Hi, Kofi. I’m going to give you a billion dollars.”


“I thought it was a joke,” Annan said, shaking his head in wonderment.


That night, Turner announced that he would give a hundred million dollars a year for ten years to support UN programs such as those that eliminate land mines, provide medicine for chil­dren, and ease the plight of refugees. He hired former senator Tim Wirth, who eventually recruited a staff of thirty-two to over­see the effort. Turner’s only condition was that his money be used only minimally for administrative overhead. Annan remem­bers that Turner also said, “All of you billionaires out there, watch out. I’m coming after you.”


He did, trying to shame fellow billionaires to part with their wealth. The Forbes list of the four hundred wealthiest Ameri­cans, he told Maureen Dowd of the New York Times, was “destroying our country,” because “these new super-rich won’t loosen up their wads because they’re afraid they’ll reduce their net worth and [wind up lower] on the list. That’s their Super Bowl.” He did succeed in spurring others to give, including Bill Gates, who has since given away an astonishing twenty-five bil­lion dollars, a good deal of it to improve world health and curb the population explosion. “This has had a real impact on other donors,” Annan said. “He broke the mold.”


Turner has written his own version of the Ten Command­ments, which he keeps on typed cards in his wallet. Without prompting, he will read from a list that includes these vows: “I promise to care for planet earth and all living things thereon”; “I promise to treat all persons everywhere with dignity, respect, and friendliness”; “I promise to have no more than one or two children”; “I reject the use of force”; “I support the United Nations.”


Turner is easily moved to tears. He said of a 1996 TNT docu­mentary on Martin Luther King, Trumpet of Conscience, which plays “Amazing Grace” throughout and feels more like a sermon than a biography, “It changed my life by watching it so many times. It helped motivate me to turn my life to service.” Turner, who calls himself a “bleeding heart,” sobbed openly when Princess Diana was killed. On a trip to China in October of 1999, with Fonda reading and CNN’s Eason Jordan working, Turner put on his headphones and popped in the videotape of a popular Warner Bros. cartoon movie, The Iron Giant, the story of a friendship between a young boy and a metallic being from outer space who, to spare people from a nuclear attack aimed at him, sacrifices himself for the sake of the planet. Jordan remem­bers looking over at his boss. “Tears were streaming down his face,” he said. “I never saw anybody cry like that in my life.” As the credits rolled, Turner called out, “That’s the saddest thing I’ve ever seen!”


Turner’s reaction to this cartoon is related to his alarm over the proliferation and inadequate control of nuclear weapons. He is aghast, he said, that over the past half-century fifty thousand American soldiers on nuclear duty have been reprimanded for drinking or drug use, increasing the danger of accidental war. The United States and Russia still had some seven thousand nuclear weapons targeted at each other, and Turner is terrified that these—along with chemical and biological weapons—could fall into the wrong hands. He dismissed the George W. Bush administration’s effort to build an antimissile defense system as madness; the technology won’t work, he asserted, and, in any case, it won’t prevent weapons of mass destruction from being delivered by car, by ship, or in a suitcase. All of these dangers “are off the radar screen,” he said in early 2001. “We have a huge job. Probably ninety-five percent of the U.S. population doesn’t know about it.” And only a handful of senators do. Thus, Turner’s Nuclear Threat Initiative, and his $250 million, five-year funding pledge to curb the proliferation of nuclear, chemical, and biolog­ical weapons. To co-chair it, he decided that he needed someone with standing among leading Democrats and Republicans in the United States, as well as someone with broad experience. He turned to a fellow Georgian, former senator Sam Nunn, who once chaired the Senate Armed Services Committee; a moderate Democrat, he had the ear of the establishment. Although Nunn’s caution gave Turner pause, he bowed to Nunn’s insistence that he be granted a free hand.


This Nuclear Threat Initiative came three years later and was not linked to Turner’s UN pledge. It would, Nunn said, more than double the sum spent on curbing nuclear weapons by all the world’s foundations. The task is enormous. To cite one example, Nunn said there are one hundred Russian attack submarines with nuclear reactors “just sitting there” unsecured, and Russia lacks the resources to secure them. Before educating the public, Nunn had to educate Turner and slow him down. “Ted is much more an individual who believes that the goal of eliminating nuclear weapons is achievable,” said Nunn, a deliberate and non­flamboyant man whose white button-down shirts and plain ties match his personality. “I see so many things that have to be done in terms of trust and verification and transparency and stability and security before you can have a national discussion about the elimination of these weapons.” Nunn advised Turner to allow him to recruit military and other leaders who don’t share Turner’s abolitionist views. The committee held seminars and ordered a comprehensive study to explore how it can most effectively impact these issues. Nunn said he is a Turner fan: “When he gets behind something, people know it’s serious, and it’s going to have the energy and resources.” Most days, Turner was a fan of the cautious Nunn; some days, he worried that Nunn was fencing him in.


By any measure, Turner’s philanthropic activities were extraor­dinary. The Turner Foundation, which he controls, awarded fifty million dollars in 2000 to environmental causes. A serious envi­ronmentalist, Turner can name every species of bird and animal on his ranches, and during the oil embargo of 1973, he sold his Cadillac and switched to more fuel-efficient cars; recently, he exchanged his Ford Taurus for a hybrid electric-and-gas Toyota Prius, which averages about fifty miles a gallon. In December of 2000, to solve a long-running dispute between what the United States owed the UN and what Congress was willing to pay, Turner joined Richard C. Holbrooke, then the American ambas­sador to the UN, to shape an extraordinary compromise: Turner would contribute the thirty-four-million-dollar difference, and the UN would adjust its future dues formula.


Unapologetically, Turner calls himself “a do-gooder.” He says so in a loud voice, and it gets louder as he gets excited. Turner is uninhibited and is usually blissfully unaware of others; and he is hard of hearing and is too vain to use a hearing aid. “Half the peo­ple alive today are already living in what we would consider intol­erable conditions,” he declares. “One-sixth don’t have access to clean drinking water; one-fifth live on less than a dollar a day; half the women in the world don’t have equal rights with men; the forests are shrinking; the temperature’s rising, and the oceans are rising, because of the melting of the ice cap.” He sounds like a billionaire Jeremiah. In a hundred years, he believes, New York will be under water and it will be “so hot the trees are going to die.” He continues, “It will be the biggest catastrophe the world has ever seen—unless we have nuclear war.” He was outraged that the United States and others don’t do more to alleviate these horrors and to combat the defense and foreign policies of George W Bush. “The new administration attempts to make enemies out of the Russians, the North Koreans, and the Chinese to jus­tify the gigantic military buildup it wants to make in peacetime,” he said. “The economy of North Korea is smaller than the econ­omy of Detroit! What threat does North Korea pose to us?” And he is outraged by the world’s exploding population; although he has five children, he once declared, “If I was doing it over again I wouldn’t have had that many, but I can’t shoot them now that they’re here.”


Auletta reveals Ted Turner with a journalist’s touch: we have the stories, some of the facts, and limited perspective. Media Man leaves readers wondering about Turner and wanting to understand more about the man. It’s a good start, but there’s more to the story.


Steve Hopkins, February 25, 2005



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The recommendation rating for this book appeared

 in the March 2005 issue of Executive Times


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