HBO History Makers Series: A Conversation with Ted Turner

Thursday, May 13, 2010

DAVID BRADLEY: (In progress) -- on behalf of the Council, I want to welcome everyone here. I particularly want to welcome Ted Turner. It's a privilege to have him here at the Council. Welcome to all of you members, welcome to the guests. My name is David Bradley. I'm the owner of a few magazines, including "The Atlantic."

It would normally fall to me now the privilege of introducing Ted, but we have a much richer idea, and actually a much richer voice to do it. Dan Schorr has been -- was Ted's first colleague at CNN and has been a friend for the ensuing 30 years. So we asked if, in not our usual protocol, if Dan would do the introduction for Ted, and for the two of us to then chat for an hour with you.


DANIEL SCHORR: Well, accustomed as I am to public speaking, this is a really unusual one for me when it comes to speaking publicly. It's 30 years have gone by since I went to work for Ted Turner, and I could spend a lot of time that you wouldn't want to spend telling you wonderful stories about him and what he introduced into the field of communications.

But of all the stories that I had to pick from -- because I have only a limited amount of time, I have the sense that you'd probably want to hear Ted more than you want to hear me -- I'd like to tell you one thing that happened when we first met. It was, indeed, 30 years ago -- a little more than 30 years, it was 1979, and I got a call inviting me to Las Vegas to meet Ted Turner, who was planning to announce the formation of a news network for cable.

I didn't know what cable was in those days. We didn't have cable in Washington, as a result of which eventually Ted Turner managed to put a satellite dish in my front yard so I could see -- so my family could see what I was doing for CNN. But on this occasion I went to Las Vegas for breakfast. And he said, "What do you need to know?" I said, what I need to know is what is -- what is cable? What is a cable news network? What does that mean? I mean, who would want to watch 24 hours of news a day, and how do you know you can make it pay?

He dropped his voice a little bit and said, "Let me tell you something, and maybe then you'll understand. You're accustomed to news in newspapers. Newspapers are energy- inefficient." Huh? "Yes, think of it. For you to be able to read a newspaper at breakfast, first of all, you have to chop down a tree and mash it up, and make paper out of it, and then get some ink and push the ink onto the paper -- all of which requires energy. And eventually you got newspapers that's delivered to you by a truck, using gasoline; and when you're finished reading it they come in another truck and take it away. That cannot last. Newspapers can't last because of the situation of energy in this country."

I said, wow. I remember that -- I remember that to this day. It was the first lesson I had in Ted Turner, a true visionary in the field of communications. He's gone a long way since. CNN has gone a long way since. But I'm glad, myself, to have this opportunity once again to pay tribute to somebody to whom I've really been paying tribute in my own mind for a long time.

Thank you. (Applause.)

BRADLEY: Ted comes to us tonight as part of a Council program called "History Makers." Not the traditional Council program whose purpose is to look over the horizon -- whither the euro or what's going to happen in Pakistan. Rather, this is a chance to bring people up who have, by creativity or influence, had a significant effect on the world that we live in, and do a retrospective, do the narrative of their lives. The program, the whole series of "History Makers," is funded by HBO, and the Council is really appreciative of their doing this work.

So my role: There's a story The Washington Post wrote up in January of 1989. Dan Quayle and George Bush had just had their election and it was Inauguration Day of 1989. And Dan Quayle decided that he wanted to get up and go to Upper Northwest Washington to a Roy Rogers and have breakfast there before he was inaugurated, as a last chance to be out and among the people. So he got his food at Roy Rogers and he returned to his table. And he turned to the woman at the table to the left and he said, "Hi, my name is Dan Quayle." "Hi," she responded, "I'm your Secret Service agent." (Laughter.) That is typical Dan Quayle: it's three parts good will for every one part of sentient contribution.

I bring enormous good will to this. I bought Ted's autobiography. It's called, "Call me Ted." It arrived a couple days ago. And I did what anyone in the room would do, I settled in to breeze through it so I'd have a little bit of the narrative to do. And I actually ended up reading the book. And it is one of the most -- if there were an intersection, a physical intersection of audacity, and scale, and ambition, and courage, and then accomplishment all running into the same place, Ted Turner resides there. So what I thought I would do is take you through as much of this 70-year narrative -- asking Ted to talk about highlights, as we're able to get accomplished. We'll talk together for about a half hour, and then we'll open up for others to do questions and answers.

Let me tell you two administrative things: One is that the conversation -- this conversation is on-the-record; and second, if you have a cell phone or BlackBerry, if you would turn it off, that would be terrific.

So I'd love to do some of the narrative of your life, and bring to life the book that I've just spent the last 36 hours with. So let me take you way back to what is an arrestingly vivid childhood. Close parents, good family, but you still ended up, a year in boarding school at age four, effectively expelled from first grade; a military academy at age nine, which you refer to as "Lord of the Flies." I know there is a moment that comes in the book -- in tenth grade when you turned from being a hell-raiser to actually a deeply-competitive, earnest kid, but before that, tell us something about the early days. Would we recognize the Ted Turner we know today? What were you like in the early days?

TED TURNER: Well, I was really small. (Laughter.) So I don't think you would recognize me. And I was a lot younger. (Laughs.) (Laughter.)

BRADLEY: (Laughs.) Tell us about the early education. What was the "Lord of the Flies" school?

TURNER: I think that's when I was in the boarding school, wasn't it? It was it was more like a prison than -- or what I imagined a prison was. But, for instance, the play yard was surrounding by a chain-link fence so we couldn't get out. And it was -- the ground was covered with gravel. There was no grass, so we played on stones.

BRADLEY: And you became a little bit of a hellion. How did you get kicked out of first grade?

TURNER: Putting pebbles in the other kids' galoshes. (Laughter.)

BRADLEY: Repeatedly? Not once, but --

TURNER: Well, I don't know. It was a long time ago and I've -- (laughter) -- I don't remember too well.

BRADLEY: (Laughs.)

TURNER: But I think I remember that they said about me that I was mischievous. I wasn't really bad.

BRADLEY: And then you hit tenth grade and there's a very vivid moment in the story. You're about to go back to the military academy, and you're looking at your shoes and you make a decision. Can you set that up? Can you explain that story?

TURNER: Well, I was -- it was a military school. They're pretty well gone now, but there were quite a few of them at that time. And I went to one, and the way that you showed your enthusiasm for the system -- the military system was how much you shined your shoes. If you really believed in the system, you went around with a spit -- a spit-shine on your shoes; and if you were rebelling, like I was at the time, you went around with scuffed up shoes.

And I went up with -- I was going around with scuffed up shoes. And my shoes got old and I had to get a new pair. And they looked so nice that I didn't really want to scuff them up. So I decided just to shine them. And every day we had an inspection when we would form for military drill, and my officer, when he came down expecting to see my scuffy shoes, saw a spit-shine and he nearly fell over backwards.

So I said, well, this is kind of fun. Let's just see -- I tried to be the worst student I could possibly be to show my disdain for the whole system, what if I just try and see if I can't be the best student for awhile, just to see what happens. So I tried it and I liked it better. I was tired of being "Peck's Bad Boy."

BRADLEY: Were you competitive already at that age?


BRADLEY: How did that present in tenth grade?

TURNER: Well, everything that I did.

I loved playing chess and checkers and bridge and different games, Monopoly. You know, this is the days before electronic games, really, but one of the most interesting things about our lives is just look how much things have changed since we were little kids. I mean, it's just -- I mean, how many little kids today play with playing cards? None. How many people -- when's the last time you made a phone call from a phone booth? You know? When's the last time you took a picture with a Polaroid camera?

And it's happened in our lifetime. So much has happened.

BRADLEY: The book is fulsome of how much you revered your father. He was your model. He was your best man in your marriage. He was also a very strong figure.

What was he trying to teach you? What's the thing you took away from your father?

TURNER: Well, he was trying to teach me everything from business to personal conduct and how to conduct yourself with friends. He was a general as far as knowledge was concern. He was a good businessman. He was very intelligent. And he was trying to be like a good parent and teach me everything he could.

BRADLEY: What was his view on work ethic? And how much of that do you believe in now?

TURNER: He had a very strong work ethic, and he instilled that in me, too, or helped to do so. And I've always had a strong work ethic. And I attribute a great deal of my success to that.

But not just that because you have to be more than just a hard worker. You have to be smart, too, to really get anywhere in life. To get to the top, you have to have everything going for you, I think, or it helps. It's not good to be weak in any one particular area because that could be your Achilles heel.

BRADLEY: This month, when I was reading the early chapters of how well am I raising my boys, and there were two things in the book that struck me as different in kind than what I've done.

One was he had you working from age --

TURNER: Twelve.

BRADLEY: Twelve.

TURNER: Well, actually, I started working a couple hours a day when I was 10 in the summertime. I worked in the yard. We had a couple-acre yard, and we had a -- in those days, it was before they had electric and gasoline-powered mowers, and we had the old push mower.

BRADLEY: Those were so much fun.

TURNER: You know what? Any little stick, a twig would get stuck in that and you had to go and remove it. And it was really hard to cut the grass with a push mower.

BRADLEY: Were you working harder in your teens just by dint (ph) of hours than any other teenager you know?

TURNER: I'm sorry?

BRADLEY: Were you working harder as a teen than any other of the teenagers --

TURNER: That I knew?

BRADLEY: -- that you knew.

TURNER: Yeah, I would say so. I would say so.

BRADLEY: The other thing that struck me was -- and you repeated it twice in the book -- how your father -- how high your father thought a goal should set. Can you explaining that teaching?

TURNER: Well, he personally had grown up in the Depression, and he had to drop out of -- he was a freshman at Duke, and he had to drop out of school because his father went bankrupt and lost his farm. And he gritted his teeth and said, you know, I'm going to work hard, I'm going to make a lot of money, and I'm going to be a millionaire, and I'm going to have a yacht and a plantation because he lived down in Mississippi.

And he said -- he accomplished all those things about the time he was 50. And he had a very -- he had set those goals for himself. And once he'd accomplished them, he had a hard time resetting his goals higher. And he suggested to me that I should set my goals so high that I couldn't possibly achieve them in my lifetime so I'd always have something to look forward to.

And I did that, and now I'm working on trying to rid of world of nuclear weapons. I'm trying to get the world to get serious about climate change and put in -- phase out coal and oil. And I'm trying to see if we can stabilize the population and eliminate poverty through the millennium development goals of the United Nations.

And I'm over my head -- (laughter) -- but happily so because I don't have to worry about not having anything to do. (Laughter.) So I'm very happy with it.

BRADLEY: This is where the conversation turns and we begin to show you what a failure the life of Ted Turner has been. (Laughter.) I want to really focus on this.

Your father died when you were 24, and you suddenly own a business. What do you own? What condition was it in?

TURNER: It was a billboard company that was doing about $4 million a year, and it probably had a cash flow -- I think there was about 6 million (dollars) in debt, and the cash flow was about a million (dollars). So it was about six times -- it was heavily in debt. In those days, five or six times was considered a high debt level.

BRADLEY: And what did you do with that company?

TURNER: He had just purchased some other billboard companies which were a hundred percent leveraged, and I had to get the leverage down a little bit by increasing the volume and the cash flow which we did. He had taught me -- it's a very simple business. I mean, you put a billboard up, you go out and rent the space to put the sign up and you pay a monthly fee to the landlord, and then you sell the billboard for quite a bit more than you're paying and you have to put up the sign and paint it or -- back in those days, we had bill posters.

Remember the post no bills? We posted it with glue just like hanging wallpaper. And I learned how to do all that during the summers as I came up. So I was ready to run that company.

In fact, after about five years, I was ready to do something else and take on a different challenge, and that's when I looked around and decided I wanted to get into electronic media. And I started with radio. I bought five radio stations, bought and merged. And then I decided in Atlanta, I'd take a shot with this UHF television station that was going broke.

BRADLEY: This 10-year period that we're talking about now is, for me -- and I'm an entrepreneur -- the most astonishing part of the run. So if you owned a billboard company -- you were young. You were 24. You inherited a billboard company. You reverse its economics, make it profitable.

What you do is you buy more billboard companies and spread out the billboard. And Ted makes a really unobvious leap into UHF, high-frequency, Channel 17, unprofitable, tiny television station in Atlanta. And what begins now is the basis of the story that we all know.

Tell us about WTCG.

TURNER: What about it?

BRADLEY: How big? How broken?

TURNER: Well, when we bought it -- and I paid $2-and-a-half million for it -- it was grossing $600,000 a year and losing a million (dollars). So it was a real challenge. And there were about 30 employees.

And I took that company from 1970 when I bought it to '91, 21 years later, that same company was grossing 3-and-a half-billion -- no, 2-and-a-half billion (dollars). And it went from 30 employees to 12,000.

And it went from losing a million dollars a year to making about 5 (hundred million dollars) or 600 million (dollars) a year.

BRADLEY: Can you tell a little of the detail of how you took that first step from being a very small local station to being beamed up by satellite and became the nation's cable television station?

TURNER: Well, you know, first thing when I got in the television business, I got the trade journals, you know, advertising age and electronic media. I started reading the weekly trades. I'm trying to learn as much as a possibly could about television because I never worked in television, and I started out as an owner of a station not knowing anything more than that that was what it was.

And so I started learning. And I was reading about -- it was just about the time that satellites were getting started.

And our sponsor here, HBO, was reporting to me for three years, incidentally, when I was part of Time Warner. HBO was the first company to use satellite, and -- they were planning it. They hadn't done it yet. They were getting ready to.

And I said, well, why couldn't I do that? Why couldn't I take my station and put it on a satellite and cover the whole country? I knew cable television was only in about 10 percent of the U.S. homes. But the more I was studying the electronic media businesses, there was no reason why I couldn't be in 100 percent of the homes, except getting people to pay $20 a month to get the service.

And so that's where I came up with the idea, just reading about it in the trade journals. It was -- seemed pretty simple to me, but other people didn't notice it.

BRADLEY: One of the audacious things was beginning to program the Atlanta Braves games, and then buying the Atlanta Braves, and then making the Atlanta Braves the nation's baseball team if your market didn't happen to have a baseball team.

This was not well received by the networks, and it wasn't particularly well received by Major League Baseball when you took the Braves national.

TURNER: (Inaudible.)

BRADLEY: How much flak did you take? How hard was that argument?

(Scattere laughter.)

TURNER: Well, don't forget the motion picture industry. They were all upset too because all their programs were being distributed all over the country.

BRADLEY: But tell us about the fight.

TURNER: It was -- well, I went out, when I knew I was -- when I figured I was going to go up onto satellite, I bought as long-term contracts as I possibly could for films and situation comedies, so I'd have some product to run while I was building it up. And I was able to make some pretty long-term deals.

And then I went up on the satellite, and the motion picture industry and the baseball owners said I was invading their territories. And -- which I was. It's not stealing; that's what I said.

They accused me of stealing their programming, and I said it's not stealing because the FCC regulations say that a cable system can bring in a television, a distant television station. I said, you know, the law of the land takes precedence over the law of the League. But I --

For about 10 years it was an ongoing battle. But in the end, we were able to negotiate for exclusive television rights, in about 10 years. So we made the transition pretty smoothly, except for a lot of flak and battles in court and battles in Washington and with the Congress; the broadcasters wanted to stop cable TV.

BRADLEY: When people are criticizing you or attacking you, trying to stop you, does that up the game for you, or do you find that a tax?

TURNER: A what?

BRADLEY: A tax on you. Do you --

TURNER: A tax?

BRADLEY: Do you get burdened down when you're under attack like that? Or is that --

TURNER: It's been so long since I've been under attack like that -- (laughter) -- because I never -- I only did that once. That was just --

That's something that, also, that I've learned, that it's very hard looking back through history to find somebody who led more than one revolution in one lifetime.

And I led the cable revolution, and everybody expects me to -- what am I going to do next? Well, I'm trying to, well -- to have restabilized the population or got rid of nuclear weapons, those would be worthwhile things. And I am working on them, but I'm not absolutely certain that I'm going to be able to accomplish any of those goals in my lifetime.

So I've done my revolution.

BRADLEY: But you owned the cable revolution.

TURNER: Well, there were a lot of other people too. But certainly I was one of the leaders.

BRADLEY: I'll be interviewing them later tonight if you want to stay for the other great cable leaders.

If you don't mind, I'm worried you're going to dodge these questions. But there are two stories of real courage in the book. One is just physical, raw courage.

So Ted was the captain for the America's Cup race in 1977 and won that race. But the really terrifying race was a race called the Fastnet, which went down the English Channel and then into the Irish Sea.

And while he was captaining it, a storm came up. Sixty-mile -- 60-knot winds, 35-foot waves.

Can you do that cinematically for us? Can you tell us, like, were you on deck when the storm arrived? Do you see storms coming?


BRADLEY: Tell us that story.

TURNER: Well, it's a long story, going through a storm. It lasted about 12 hours. And when I heard the weather report, I made the prediction that 20 people would die that night. And 18 did, so I was pretty accurate. It was the worst storm that a racing sailboat fleet had ever come up against.

But I knew we were well positioned when the storm hit, and I think there were about 300 boats in the race and about 80 finished and 220 either dropped out or sank.

BRADLEY: Are you alone on deck?

TURNER: No, no. There were about 15, a crew of about 15, and we were divided into two watches. Every four hours we switched crews. And it was very, very rough.

And I can't -- you'd have to read the chapter; it's only about 20 pages long. Read it in about five minutes.

BRADLEY: Okay. Let me give you an easier one.

So 1980, Ted decides to start an all-new station, 24 hours. It becomes CNN. There are three networks with broadcast news. They spend between 200 (million dollars) and $300 million each every year to put on a half-hour program.

And Ted budgets 30 million (dollars) to budget 24/7, all year long, to go up on an RCA satellite. And then RCA loses the satellite. Just disappeared.

TURNER: Right.

BRADLEY: Explain what happens.

TURNER: We never found out. It just disappeared. And they told me that was too bad, but they didn't have a satellite and we'd just have to make other arrangements. But there were no other arrangements to make.

So we, fortunately, had a contract with an option agreement, and we were able to work it out. But it was real dicey, because we only had a couple of months to find a substitute, which we were able to force them to let us have a transponder, or a channel, on one of their other satellites.

BRADLEY: How much were you at risk in betting with CNN? Could it have all gone down?

TURNER: We were 100 percent at risk. Everything was on the line. But I had --

Then my father died and I made the decision I wanted to try and keep the billboard company. (Because ?) he had signed a contract to sell it the day before he shot himself. I was at risk the whole time, for 20 years. Maybe not 20. Fifteen. A long time. It was --

But it was very exciting. To me, I wouldn't have -- I didn't want to do what the easy thing was. The easy thing would have been to do very little. But I wanted to do something that was exciting.

If you only have one life to lead, you might as well not make it a dull one.

BRADLEY: Yeah. You mastered that.

I'm going to skip a chapter, because of the time constraint here. But you roll forward to the mid-'90s. Ted is the owner of a global news and entertainment empire. You know the brand names -- CNN, TNT, Turner Classics, Cartoon Network -- billions of dollars of net worth. Married to Jane Fonda.

Also deeply interested in winning a -- in buying one of the three broadcast networks. And there's a fantastic Bob Eiger story in there, which maybe we can tease out in the other people's questions.

I worry for all the other men here that this is thoroughly disheartening for the rest of us. (Scattered laughter.) So what I want to do is humanize you for a moment, bring you down to our scale.

You have been turned down for dates, people whom you asked out and they said no. Would you tell us about being turned down in your first request for a date with Jane Fonda, and how you turned that around?

TURNER: Well, first of all, I grew up -- my dad had been in the U.S. Navy in World War II, and I went to military school, and I was really patriotic and gung-ho. And my father, he used the expression "my country, right or wrong."

And he said, son -- When we were in Vietnam or the Korean War, and I said, Dad, what are we doing over there? He said, I don't question what the president decides to do with the armed forces of the United States. If he says let's go to North Korea, we'll go to North Korea. My country, right or wrong. And he said, if we bomb a few innocent civilians, so what, you know? Just think what we did at Nagasaki and Hiroshima. We killed a quarter of a million people in one minute. So, right or wrong.

And so I said I believe that too! My country, right or wrong. And then, after the Vietnam War was over, I watched the 13-part series that had been done on the Vietnam War. And I think it was -- I forget the name of it, but it was on PBS.

And I changed my mind watching that show. I said, my country when it's right; not my country when it's wrong. When my country's wrong, I want to know about it, be able to talk about it, and at least oppose it. I'm not going to be a traitor or anything like that, but I'm not going to be supportive when my country's wrong.

And so my idea changed about Jane Fonda. Up until then I thought she was Hanoi Jane. She was a Commie-lover, that shootin' her is too good for her, you know? This was during the war.

So this was about the time the war had ended, and I read in the newspaper -- my marriage had broken up -- and I read in the newspaper that she and her husband, Tom Hayden, had split. So I called her on the phone. I'd met her at a -- because I'd already been out in Hollywood; I was in the movie business a little bit.

And I called her and asked her if she'd like to go out. I got her on the phone. And she said, I'm too devastated right now to even think about going out. She said, call me in six months.

So I circled the date on the calendar. (Laughter.) And to the day, I called. Six months to the day I waited and asked her out again, and she said okay. And that's how it started.

BRADLEY: That's a nice story.

So we're at the point where we're going to open it up for questions from the audience.


BRADLEY: You're agreeable to that.

I've been asked to remind you both to keep your questions reasonably limited in length and also to direct them not to current public policy. You can if you want; I don't think there's a religion about it, but we're largely teasing out the life of somebody --

TURNER: While people are thinking about what they're going to ask, could I just say something for your consideration?

BRADLEY: Of course.

TURNER: I'm not demanding like I did the last time I was here. Several years ago I was here and I said -- because we banned the word "foreign" at CNN to describe other countries in the world.

I see a world of neighbors, not a world of foreigners. That made good sense a hundred years ago, because we were a world of foreigners. People didn't go around the world. You couldn't fly. It took you a lifetime to go around the world, and you can do it now in 24 hours.

But I suggested that you change your name -- it's a big deal -- to the Council of International Relations, rather than Foreign Relations. I'll just let you think about it again, because maybe someday you'll do it. (Laughter.) But -- because it would be a lot more appropriate.

A perfect -- another example of a bad term, and it was used -- I spoke to the White House fellows at lunch today. And one of them said, so you work on birth control? I said, no, I don't work on birth control. I said, "control" carries terrible connotations. It sounds like the China one-child family program.

I said what I'm for is family planning. It's the same thing as birth control, right? But it's a much user-friendly term. Everybody is in favor of planning. Is there anybody in here that doesn't like planning? (Laughter.) But there's how many people in here like to be controlled? (Laughter.) Nobody. You control me over my dead body. I mean, that's just --

And International Relations would be better. (Laughter.)

BRADLEY: I'm not sure how Richard would feel about this, but he's not here, so all in favor of changing the name of the Council? (Laughter.) Opposed?

How about some questions?

TURNER: Please. I'll bet I'm the first person to suggest that you change your name. (Chuckles.)

BRADLEY: In the back.

QUESTIONER: Good evening. C.D. Glenn (sp), with the Peace Corps.

Mr. Turner, thank you for being here this evening.

TURNER: Ted's my name.


My question is around your decision to give a billion dollars to the U.N. in '98 and another billionaire made a different decision to do something different with his money.

And I wanted to know if you could give us some of your thought process on creating the U.N. Foundation, and sort of what went through your mind when you said I want to make this lasting impact with every decision in the world. If you had it to do all over again, would you do something differently, or what do you think about that decision now?

TURNER: No, I think the decision was a good one. I had been contacted by the United Nations Association because from the very beginning, when we only had 300 employees, we had a full-time bureau, Richard Roth, at the United Nations.

We were going to be, with CNN, a national and international news organization, so we had to follow the U.N. And I studied the U.N. pretty carefully, as I did all of history. And I came to the conclusion that we couldn't get along without the U.N.

And the United States was two years in arrears on our dues. We owed them about a billion dollars, and they couldn't pay their peacekeepers. And when the biggest member of a club doesn't pay his dues, that's not good.

And so I was trying to think what I was going to say. I normally -- I don't go with a scripted speech, hardly ever. I usually just get up and share my thoughts.

And so I waited till the last minute. I was on a plane flying to New York to get this award two days later. I was going up to do some work there in the interim. And I said, what am I going to say? And that's where I came up with the idea to --

If I were to give the U.N. the billion dollars, it would cover the dues of the United States. I'd kind of be bailing my country out, as opposed to my country bailing me out, like -- (scattered laughter). In fact, I -- (pauses).


I did write a check for 32 million (dollars) to the State Department to pay the shortfall in the dues of the U.N. one year. Richard Holbrooke may be here later. He was ambassador to the U.N. when I did it.

Anyway, so that was where I got the idea. And then I called my financial people and told them. I said, I want to announce that I'm -- on Friday evening at the Waldorf, I want to announce that I'm going to give the United Nations a billion dollars. And they checked real fast, and they said, we can't do that in two days! You can't -- we can't -- paying our taxes and the other stuff -- and you don't have a billion dollars anyway.


I said, well, I'll give them 100 million (dollars) a year for 10 years. That's really not quite a billion (dollars), because interest wasn't considered, but it sounds like it.


Anyway, so -- and then they called me back later that afternoon and said, we've already checked, and they said only a country can give money to the United Nations. They don't have the capacity for individual donations. So I said, oh, thank God -- (laughter) -- because I was only worth 3 billion (dollars) at the time. That would be giving a third of what I had away.

And I came up with the billion-dollar figure. First, I said, we'll give them some money. And I said, how about 100 million (dollars)? Then I said, how about a billion (dollars)? Because no one had ever given a billion dollars before.

BRADLEY: (Inaudible.)


TURNER: I don't know whether I knew that or not, but I'd done a little work on philanthropy. I'd already started doing it.

So anyway, that's -- and so they called me back. But they told me I couldn't do that. But I said, oh, the Lord -- I got down on my knees and said, "Thank you, God. I just got $1 billion back. I can't do it, so the Lord doesn't want the U.N. to have the $1 billion." (Laughter.)

Well, anyway, but I went to bed and I didn't feel so good, because I started thinking, "There's got to be another skin that cat, Turner." I said, "What if" -- to myself -- I said, "What if I create a foundation?"

At that time, I didn't know what the name of the foundation was going to be. It was a good idea to ask the U.N. if I could use their name. It's not the Turner U.N. Fund. This is the United Nations Foundation. It was like CNN -- Cable News Network. How could a cable system not carry the Cable News Network?

BRADLEY: It confused --

TURNER: They'd get it mixed up that cable TV and cable network was the same thing, but it wasn't. And but it worked beautifully. And if I hadn't done that -- if I had named it the Turner News Network, we probably would've failed, because that name really -- choosing a name's important. That's why I'd really like to see you change your name. (Laughter.)

But I called my lawyers back in Atlanta and I said, "How about a parallel foundation and give all the money to United Nations causes?" And they said, "That might work."

So they went back and they called me back the next morning and said, "That'll work." So I called Kofi Annan that morning and I said, "I need to come over and see you, because I'm going to surprise you tonight." Tonight was the night of the dinner and my acceptance remarks. So I went over and told him. I said, "I'm going to give you $1 billion." He said, "You're kidding me?" I said, "No, I'm not."

It was the best thing I ever did, because -- well, we wouldn't -- I studied it carefully. We would not have made it through the Cold War without the United Nations. It was the difference where when Khrushchev took off his shoe -- remember -- and pounded the podium when he spoke at the U.N.. He was so angry he couldn't contain himself, but he didn't drop the bombs. And the reason is because if you give a person a chance to be heard, my study of history shows that you can go a long way to avoiding war if you just listen to each other.

Because as long as you're talking -- you know, it's when you stop talking -- and that's why I started the Goodwill Games to replace the Olympics that had been boycotted twice by the United States in Moscow and then by the Soviet Union in Los Angeles four years later. We weren't competing on the playing field. Our communications had basically broken down.

When I first went to Moscow in 1983, no American -- no Russian of any consequence had been in the American embassy for two years. They didn't even come over to have dinner. We didn't even really need an embassy there. They were just there to clear passports and stamp passports and things like that. It was a bad situation.

The first thing you've got to do is get people talking and then you've got a chance of having something good happen. But when you're not talking it's not good. And that's -- the United Nations is a great place to have a debate, just like this organization is.

BRADLEY: Let's do another question.

Go ahead. No -- right here. You go ahead, Anton (sp).

QUESTIONER: I have perhaps a very strange question, but in all these years, have you ever been tempted to go into space?

TURNER: I'm sorry. I'm hard of hearing.

QUESTIONER: Have you ever been tempted to go into space?

TURNER: Into space?



QUESTIONER: Okay. (Laughter.)

TURNER: I go into space very time I get in my airplane --


TURNER: But I don't put my whole family on one plane anymore, not after what happened to the Polish flight.

BRADLEY: So I'm going to cross that question off. The space question.

TURNER: But I don't want to go into space. And I remember watching the Challenger -- you know, I mean, quite a few of these space vehicles have blown up. And I like living. I like it here right where I am -- right here on old terra firma. (Laughter.)

QUESTIONER: (Off mike.)

TURNER: I've seen -- yeah, but I don't -- I don't like to take unnecessary risks. I'll take necessary risks, calculated, very well thought out. But I want to be damned sure that I'm going to win. And of course, you can't do that in sports, but you can do it in -- you know, I couldn't afford to be wrong.

BRADLEY: Another question? Right here.

QUESTIONER: Walt Cutler, former Foreign Service.

We know that the nuclear threat or put it this way, the global arsenals of nuclear weapons is a major concern. And it seems to me that this administration has tried very -- or is trying very hard to push that higher on the agenda.

Are you optimistic about this?

TURNER: Yes. I'm very optimistic. I'm very optimistic about ridding the world of nuclear weapons.

I had the good fortune to be in the Security Council meeting last September -- I believe it was September -- when they had the discussion and the Security Council voted. Obama was there, Medvedev -- they were at the Security Council table. And they voted unanimously to get rid of nuclear weapons.

And we already have it in a treaty. The treaty -- I think the NPT treaty -- I carry it with me in my briefcase; it's very short. On July 1st, 1968 we already signed this: "Each of the parties to the treaty undertakes to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to the cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control."

We signed that treaty. All we now have to do is honor it. And we can do it and we're going to do it. And I've been working on it for 30 years. You know, not full time. (Laughter.)

QUESTIONER: (Off mike). Mr. Turner, I hope you will bring that --

TURNER: Hey --

QUESTIONER: -- same determination -- I hope that you will bring that same determination to the Treaty on the Convention of Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, which the United States has still not ratified. And this is the right moment with Mr. Obama already saying that he will sign it if the Senate gives it's consent. So I hope you'll bring your voice to make that happen.

TURNER: Thank you.

QUESTIONER: Thank you.

BRADLEY: The 21-year-old woman there. Yes. (Laughter.)

QUESTIONER: Thank you. I appreciate that.

Amy Wilkinson; I'm with Harvard University.

My question is about being a leader and an entrepreneur, now a philanthropist. How do you spot opportunities? What do you look for?

TURNER: I'm an opportunist. I try and keep up with what's happening in the world by watching -- watching the news. And I read The Economist every week, because I need an international perspective -- that's my main source of serious news.

BRADLEY: Well, that was an unfortunate sentence. He meant to say, in reading The Atlantic and The Economist, he finds (laughter) --

TURNER: I can't help it. I'm telling the truth. (Laughter.) The Atlantic's good, but it doesn't -- The Economist really --

BRADLEY: That was fine. That was fine right there. (Laughter.)

TURNER: It covers a broader --

BRADLEY: Thank you.

Okay. Please, right here.

QUESTIONER: Thank you.

Ted, Amy Bonder, former diplomat.

With the terrible accident that's happened with British Petroleum, I wondered what your perspective is on the effect of that and climate change and just the general outlook on the climate change potential?

TURNER: Well, I'm a -- I've studied that very carefully, because I'm a landowner and a rancher and the weather's very important to me. And it's important to everybody. And it's one of my major things that I'm working at the current time.

I was up on the Hill lobbying earlier today for a climate change bill -- you know, the Kerry-Lieberman bill came out yesterday. I hope we'll get the -- get a bill, at least a reasonably good bill.

I think that 4-degrees Fahrenheit or 2-degrees Celsius is too much to plan for, because if you have a -- if a person has a 4-degrees Fahrenheit fever, you go to the emergency room. And we don't want the planet to have to go to the emergency room, but that's where we're headed.

I think we need to not let it get more than 2-degrees Fahrenheit hotter than it already -- already is and it's close to there right now.

It's extremely important. And I can't think of a higher priority, except getting rid of nuclear weapons, because with nuclear weapons you can end life on Earth in one day.

And with global warming, you might have 20 years. We have a little more time, but not a whole lot. It's very serious. And the United States needs to take the leadership.

You know, anybody that just reads the media -- and you all are media hounds like I am -- it's not progressing nearly as well as it could be. And Copenhagen was not as big a success as we would have liked for it to be. So we have a lot of work to do there.

BRADLEY: This woman here.

QUESTIONER: I'm Debbie McCoy with Twenty/20 Capital.

You mentioned that as you gave your U.N. donation, you prayed. And I'm curious about the role of faith, if any, in your business decision-making.

TURNER: I didn't pray much.

QUESTIONER: You didn't pray much?

TURNER: I do pray a little. When I have a friend that's got cancer, I find out about it, I say, "Lord, please help them." It's short. But with the tremendous growth in population, I have a feeling that the computers and the incoming messages are overwhelming the heavenly system, and so we should keep our prayers short and not clog it up any more than it already is.

BRADLEY: Alan (sp).

QUESTIONER: Since you forecasted cable television, I'm curious what you think about the future of newspapers in particular, and also the network TV, the big three.

TURNER: The big three really aren't big three anymore, hardly. And newspapers are -- for the most part are relics of the past. They won't be here in 20 years. There'll be a couple. But it's just the information is there. It's there right now. It's just going to transfer over to your computer so you can get it electronically without the physical delivery of the paper, which doesn't make sense when you have a way to instantaneously distribute the information, the same information.

BRADLEY: How about network television?

TURNER: Network television is pretty well gone. There are just three channels now.

BRADLEY: And the news? Will we be seeing half-hour nightly news?

TURNER: I don't know what's going to happen. You know, I'm not in it anymore. I got squeezed out. That was -- I got myself in a position where that was possible. I didn't anticipate it. I didn't deliberately give up. Actually, I guess I did. Anyway, that was the one mistake that I made, one really big one, and it was a very big one.

But I'm still -- in a way, there were some benefits to it, as it's allowed me to work full-time on other things. I don't have to worry about what's running on Thursday night at 9:00. And I did it for 25 years. So I'm living with the situation where I am.

BRADLEY: Still a big situation.

TURNER: Right.

BRADLEY: One or two more. This woman right here.

QUESTIONER: Thanks. Rebecca Bonner (sp) at the Defense Department.

I just finished a retrospective study of the role of the CEO in the United States, and the role has changed a lot from our founding to what it is today. You've headed a lot of organizations for the past three or four decades now. And as you look at CEOs testifying before Congress these days and as you reflect on how your role as head of an organization has changed as shareholder pressures have changed, as the average tenure of the Fortune 500 CEO has been shortened to between four and five years, what do you see as the duty of an American CEO to the country beyond just plain wealth generation, if any?

TURNER: Could you put that in one question?

BRADLEY: Sure. So let's use the last part of the question. Do you see a duty of the large corporate CEO to some public good other than wealth generation?

TURNER: Yes, I do think so. I think we all have -- we have numerous debts. We have debts to education, because education -- without it, we wouldn't be where we are. And we have debts to our government and to society as a whole.

I was always very responsible. I tried to make our news coverage as unsensational as possible, as factual as possible and as unbiased as possible. And when I first started CNN, we sat down. I said, "Whenever we cover the Israelis," I said, "I want to get the Palestinian point of view too." That was not common in those days, 30 years ago.

So I do believe that we all are somewhat responsible for our society and we all should pitch in and do our share.

BRADLEY: Right there in the back.

QUESTIONER: Thank you, Ted. I'm Noam. I work at Brookings on U.S. international aid. That's actually not the name of the project, but I'm afraid you might try to change the name of the project if I --

TURNER: (Laughs.)

QUESTIONER: -- said the actual name.

You mentioned the Millennium Development goals earlier. And so my question is, these are goals that we now have a president who has said that these are America's goals. Yet the general population of the United States has no idea, for the large part, what they are. And I'd like to hear from your perspective --

TURNER: And we're not funding it either.

QUESTIONER: -- as a big proponent, what, from your perspective, is at stake? We don't look likely to meet these goals by 2015, which is the target. What's at stake if we don't meet these goals, and what's at stake if we do? Thank you.

TURNER: Well, if we were successful in -- any time that we can eliminate poverty and misery anywhere in the world, I think that enriches us, because if people in another part of the world are more prosperous, they'll be able to buy our products and services that we sell, and we're better off too. I think we're better off -- we're better off in a prosperous country for sure. Aren't we better off in a prosperous world than in a world of poverty?

You can enjoy life more if you're surrounded by a reasonable amount of wealth than -- you know, I walk a little bit when I'm in Washington. And I stay at the Four Seasons. I walk around the block and down by the canal to get a little exercise during the day. And I saw the same beggar this morning when I walked at 7:00 as I saw at 5:00, just before I came here. He'd been there all day. And I thought how sad.

I mean, I -- somebody said that it was hard for them to enjoy their life fully -- I think it was Gandhi -- "It's hard for me to enjoy my life fully knowing that so many other people have nothing." And it doesn't take that much money to eliminate abject poverty. I think it was like $100 billion a year. There are so many figures in my head floating around. But we spend a trillion dollars a year, the world does, on the military. And it's mostly just a waste of money. You know, we have a country in Central America, Costa Rica, that hasn't had an army for 70 years, and they're doing just great. They put the money into education and health care.

So I think we'd be much better off if we were to take -- because the money's got to come from somewhere. And the development goals were developed before we had this global recession that we're having now. Nobody knows for sure how bad it's going to be. Somebody says it's almost over. Now it's getting worse. And Greece -- we don't really know for sure. But once we get that situation more clearly visible, then we can go ahead with our plans.

But I strongly believe that we should cut back over a period of time our military budgets, not just the United States but the whole world, working towards phasing them out. We need the money for other things. And if we're going to rebuild our energy system and build all these solar panels and wind generators and we're going to build the new grid all over the world to transport the new energy to our -- once we do that, are we going to want to spend another set of money bombing?

You know, we already paid to bomb Iraq, and now we have to pay to rebuild Iraq. You know, I mean, it's really crazy. We're fighting both sides of the war, and it just doesn't make sense. And then the Chinese make a deal with them to get their oil, so --

BRADLEY: If it's okay with you, Ted, I'm going to let Dan --

TURNER: Dan, sure.

BRADLEY: -- have the last question. And then I have some closing words.


QUESTIONER: I never did ask you this before, Ted, in all these years. You have so many ideas for change. Have you ever thought of electoral politics for yourself?

TURNER: It's too late. About 15 years ago, I was thinking about it -- thinking about it. And I discussed it with Jane, and she was -- Tom Hayden ran for the Senate while she was married to him, and she said, "I knocked on every door in California." She's a good, hard worker, I'll tell you, which is good. But she said, you know, "If you run for office," she said, "I'm out of here."

So that was -- you know, if your wife doesn't want you to run for politics, you can't run for politics. So I said, "Okay." And, of course, she was gone anyway. (Laughter.) But we're still good friends. But that was it. And I'm 71 now. I'm too old.

BRADLEY: So the book that I've been working off is called "Call Me Ted," and it is brimming with closing words. And I thought I'd just read you a few of them.

So Ted has serially joked about what's going to be written on his tombstone. So there's a period when he was being stalked by the press, and what he proposed was, on his tombstone, "You can't interview me here." (Scattered laughter.) And then when he couldn't buy one of the networks, as he tried to do, he wanted his tombstone to read, "Here lies Ted Turner. He never owned a broadcast network."

TURNER: (Laughs.)

BRADLEY: And then this isn't for his tombstone, but it's closing words. This was in his speech when he introduced CNN in 1980. He said, "We won't be signing off until the world ends. We'll be on -- we'll be on and we will cover the end of the world live, and that will be our last event. And when the world ends, we'll play 'Nearer My God to Thee' before we sign off."

One of the nice things about owning The Atlantic rather than being on its editorial staff is I'm allowed to have any opinion I want and to express it. Reading your story left me deeply admiring of you. I think you have been a remarkably good American citizen, and I've loved the occasion to interview you here.

So on behalf of the Council on International Relations -- (laughter) -- I want to thank Ted for being with us today.

TURNER: Thank you. (Applause.)







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