Ted Turner's Improbable Empire
By Ken Auletta
Atlas Books/Norton -- 205 pp -- $22.95
The media world is not nearly as much fun now that Ted Turner is no longer at center stage. The folksy, off-the-wall candor -- which at times drove Turner's public-relations handlers to cardiac episodes -- made his a refreshing voice. Beneath the outrageousness, though, one could always glimpse both the brilliance and the vulnerability.
Plenty has been written about the rise of Turner -- the bon vivant with a Rhett Butler complex, the billboard salesman who revolutionized television by creating CNN, and, of course, the man who married Barbarella (a.k.a. Jane Fonda). But in Media Man: Ted Turner's Improbable Empire, Ken Auletta puts the most human of faces on Turner yet. The picture is of a tycoon who has lost his power -- and maybe even his way -- since being pushed off his pedestal in 2000 at what would soon be called AOL Time Warner.
A staff writer for The New Yorker, Auletta is the dean of media journalists and has unsurpassed access to moguls. Media Man is an expanded and updated version of a 17,000-word New Yorker piece for which Auletta won a 2002 National Magazine Award. Here, Turner reveals his despair to Auletta, saying that during 2001 he felt suicidal. Compounding his woes at the time were two grandchildren's diagnoses with serious illnesses, his failed marriage to Fonda, and the temporary paralysis of his beloved black Labrador.
But at the center of this finely wrought portrait is Turner's shoddy treatment at the ill-fated AOL Time Warner, where he was first shut out of the merger talks and later stripped of his vice-chairman title. So upset was Turner that, during a National Press Club luncheon, he compared this abuse to a Third World genital-mutilation practice. In addition to chronicling Turner's exile, Auletta also profiles a new Ted, driven by philanthropic interests, worry about the spread of nuclear weapons, and, yes, concerns about the power of Big Media.
All in all, Media Man is an astute look at a truly innovative executive who has seen more than his share of woes, large and small.
By Tom Lowry