The Wild Rise of an American Tycoon
By Robert Goldberg and Gerald Jay Goldberg
Harcourt Brace 525pp $27
Each year, Ted Turner hosts a symposium in Atlanta called the World Report Conference. Ted foots the bill as journalists and experts from around the world hear and make speeches on topics from global warming to the population explosion to tyranny to genocide. He sits quietly in the audience during proceedings, but Turner is still the star. During a break at last year's conference, an official from the Singapore Information Ministry came over to share pleasantries with Turner. As the man turned to walk away, Turner pantomimed grabbing a baseball bat and striking three blows to the official's receding backside--an imaginary caning to his invited guest.
That's Ted Turner--high-minded but wacky and sometimes a bit scary. A self-proclaimed "citizen of the world," Turner is also infamous for boorish behavior, including ethnic and sexist slurs. An early "family values" advocate, his philandering and inattention to his children ruined two marriages. A visionary about the communications age, Turner still has to be restrained from risking his company with poorly executed deals. Paradox is the essence of the Ted Turner that emerges in Citizen Turner: The Wild Rise of an American Tycoon.
By now, the theories of how this remarkably complex, sometimes bewildering character came to be are well known. His psyche apparently was fashioned by an abusive, alcoholic, and remote father who committed suicide with a .38-caliber pistol in 1963. That left Turner, a 24-year-old college dropout, in charge of the family billboard business, the major assets of which his father had unloaded at fire-sale prices. Turner regained the assets, leveraged them into a tiny UHF station, and ultimately built one of the world's most powerful media concerns. But it was never smooth sailing. He pushed Turner Broadcasting System Inc. toward insolvency several times, most notoriously in 1984 by overpaying for MGM's film library. He lost a great measure of control over his company as a result.
Because all this has been covered in three previous biographies and countless print and TV profiles, the challenge for anyone trying to get a grip on Turner is to find something new to say. Gerald Jay Goldberg and Robert Goldberg, the father-and-son authors of Citizen Turner, don't fail for lack of trying. But Turner, they say, refused to cooperate--unless he could control the content.
The team rejected that option and soldiered on nonetheless. By getting Turner's first ex-wife and several close friends and former associates to open up, they do bring new texture to some familiar anecdotes. Robert Goldberg, a media writer for The Wall Street Journal, and Gerald Jay Goldberg, a novelist and English professor, have a highly readable style. And their emphasis on Turner's early years gives readers an entertaining exposure to one of the most intriguing people of our time. It's ironic, though, that a man who made so much money airing reruns of old movies should be chronicled in a book that so liberally recycles earlier works--while giving proper credit in copious endnotes.
But like watching Gone with the Wind on TNT, reading the book is an enjoyable experience, even if the story is familiar. One never tires of the yarns of party monster Ted at Brown University, a marriage that collapses after Turner rams his wife's boat in a regatta, the America's Cup win, the seat-of-the-pants decisions to launch such major ventures as Cable News Network Inc., and even the citizen diplomacy with Castro, Gorbachev, and Arafat.
How much better a book it would have been had the authors brought the same detailed attention to Turner's recent doings. They note that Turner's board won't let him spend more than $2 million without a supermajority approval. And they hint at the feuding that takes place on the board. But it's disappointing that they were unable to bring new insight into the impact of boardroom politics on Turner's $1 billion buy of the Castle Rock Entertainment and New Line Cinema movie studios and his dream of acquiring CBS or NBC.
The title, Citizen Turner, suggests parallels between Turner and Charles Foster Kane, the fictionalized William Randolph Hearst of Citizen Kane. And the authors come to the unstartling conclusion that, like Kane, Ted is brilliant but bizarre. But the comparisons don't really hold up. Unlike Hearst/Kane, Turner does not appear to be power-hungry. He has no consistent political agenda. Nor does he try to impose his worldview on his audience. Heck, he's not even very mean. As a former exec says of Turner's prize property: "CNN hasn't even had a dogcatcher fired."
The real question about Ted Turner is what's next. It has been 15 years since he created CNN and used information to shrink the world. His follow-up acts--the MGM deal, the purchase of movie studios, the launch of new entertainment channels--are big, but they hardly smack of the vision thing. Hamstrung by a board that won't let him roll the dice with his company anymore, frustrated by his inability to acquire a major network, and apparently happy to spend less time in the spotlight and more time with his wife, Jane Fonda, Ted Turner, now 56, seems stuck in neutral. Any Turner watcher knows this center will not hold. There's plenty of excitement in store, no doubt. But it's up to Turner's next Boswell to bring it to us.