Ted Turner: Career At A Crossroads

CNN Founder Opposes Merger With ABC News

Maverick Ted Turner has many nicknames: "Captain Outrageous," "Terrible Ted," and "The Mouth From The South." He is a fascinating, unpredictable man.

Mike Wallace and Turner recently took a walk in midtown Manhattan. They talked about Turner's job as vice chairman of AOL-Time Warner. (Though he resigned last week, Turner still holds the title until May.) "Vice chairman is kind of a title without portfolio, like the emperor of Japan," Turner said.

He's in charge of just about nothing. He doesn't even have a voice any more in the running of his baby, Cable News Network. He said his formal role has been that of advisor – but it's not really what he wants to be.

When the plan to merge Time Warner with AOL was first announced, Turner voted for it with unbridled joy. "I did it with as much or more excitement and enthusiasm as on the night I first made love 42 years ago," he said at the time.

Now he says: "Well, you know, on the eve of something like that, it - it was very clear that- that it was going to go through. So I might as well have gone along with it," he says.

Wallace asks, "And it was a big mistake?"

"It was," Turner replies. "Absolutely."

When the merger was announced, stock prices soared, giving Turner, the largest individual shareholder, billions. But since then, AOL Time Warner stock has gone south, way south. Turner says he has lost "seven or eight billion" dollars.

How did things get so bad?

It's been a long road, and 60 Minutes has been there for much of the ride. In 1977, Turner was shown when he sailed the "Courageous" to victory in the America's Cup race. By then, Turner was already on his way to a fortune, in large part thanks to his father, who ran a successful billboard company but was tortured by depression and was tough on young Ted.

"I do not think my father was abusive," Turner said. "My father was strict disciplinarian. But he and I were extremely close."

A few times, Turner said, his father beat him with a wire hanger. "He made me spank him one night," Turner said, "and that was very, very hard. It was much easier to be spanked than to spank your father."

Then, when Turner was 24, his father committed suicide. That's when Turner swung into high gear as an entrepreneur and budding tycoon. By 1979, when Harry Reasoner talked with him, Turner had already created the nation's first TV superstation – and he was the owner of the Atlanta Braves. Then, in 1980, he launched CNN. As CNN began to show that it was a serious news operation, Turner's appetite got even bigger. In 1986, when Diane Sawyer interviewed him for 60 Minutes, he had just lost his bid to take over CBS.

Then there was his personal life. Turner has been married and divorced three times, most recently to Jane Fonda, to whom Turner remains deeply loyal.

Turner is famous for saying what's on his mind.

"I get in trouble," he said, "because, you know, when you're speaking off the cuff, and you don't - aren't positive of what you're gonna say till you say it, you do tend to get in trouble. You say things that, taken out of context, look pretty outrageous sometimes."

Like the time he said that "Christianity is for losers."

"I really regretted, regretted that, from the time that it came out of my big, fat mouth," Turner said.

He called the 9/11 terrorists "brave, at the very least."

Said Turner now: "Brave was a bad-- was a bad word. But I do not think as I, I think, for instance, my father committed suicide and he was not a coward. He was very brave when he shot himself in my opinion, so I, that's why to a degree, I said that." Nonetheless, he regrets he said it.

"The Mouth From the South" has also put his money where his mouth is: he pledged $1 billion to the UN for a variety of projects.

He pledged that over 10 years. Since the collapse of his AOL Time Warner stock, he's extended that payout period, but insists he's committed to pay it. Beyond that, he's also committed to fighting the use of weapons of mass destruction. He created and bankrolled something called the Nuclear Threat Initiative for that purpose.

"The world and life have been mighty good to me. And I want to put something back," he says.

But still, he hasn't given up business. He now owns nearly two million acres, more land than the state of Delaware. And he opened a chain of Ted's Montana Grill restaurants. He also recently bankrolled "Gods & Generals" – a Civil War movie premiering next week.

What Turner is proudest of is the thing he's lost control of: CNN. Turner says he is against a merger between CNN and ABC News. Too many problems, he says.

"I think basically that CNN is doing a pretty good job," he says. "I mean there're some things obviously that I don't like, but I'm the old fuddy-duddy that it reported to for 22 or 23 years so, I mean, obviously any changes are gonna be something that give me some trouble. But you know that's just the way old folks are. That's why every now and then it's a good thing for older people to step aside and let younger people run these things."

"Is that aimed at me?" Wallace, 84, asked.

"No. Not necessarily," Turner said as both laughed.

The pair took a walk over to CNN's glass-enclosed, street-level studio in New York City.

What does Turner feel looking in at CNN? "It's difficult. But-- you know you can't live in the past. You've got to live in the present and the future. And I've got plenty to do," Turner says.

He also says that speculation he might try to buy back CNN is dead wrong - he said he doesn't have the money to do it. He pointed out that in the week since he resigned his job, as the AOL Time Warner stock dove yet again, he lost another quarter of a billion dollars.

At 64, he says he is in pretty good shape. What does he want his life to be? "I want it to be varied. I want it to be interesting. I want it to be exciting. I want it to be challenging. And I want it to be fun," he says.

When it all ends, Turner has a plan for that: "I know what I'm having 'em put on my tombstone: 'I have nothing more to say,'" he says with a laugh.
  • David Kohn

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