'Citizen Turner': wild, spectacular, successful

July 09, 1995|By David Kusnet | David Kusnet,Special to The Sun

"Citizen Turner: The Wild Rise of an American Tycoon," by Robert Goldberg and Gerald Jay Goldberg. Illustrated. 524 pages. NewYork: Harcourt, Brace and Company. $27

Broadcast journalism has been revolutionized by businessman who knows little and cares less about news. That's the inescapable conclusion of this biography of the mediamagnate founder of the Cable News Network.

"Citizen Turner" evokes Citizen Kane, the film classic based on the life of media baron William Randolph Hearst. Like the protagonist of the movie, which the authors claim their subject has seen more than 100 times, Ted Turner was shaped by a troubled childhood.

A father-and-son team themselves, the authors contend the dominant influence on Mr. Turner's life was his father, Ed, "a charmer, an alcoholic, a woman chaser, [and] a shrewd and driven businessman [whose] traits were all part of his legacy to his son."

When Ted Turner was 24 and his father was 53, the elder Turner shot himself to death. Ed Turner was anxious about whether he had over extended himself by buying a major billboard company.

His father's suicide was as much a time of testing as a time of trauma. To prove he could do what daunted his father, he halted the resale of the outdoor advertising company and set out to become the leading media owner in the South, the nation and the world.

His tactics have been the same: keep your name in the news, borrow to grow, and invest in the latest technologies. He moved from billboards to UHF television, cable, satellites and a global news network.

While Mr. Turner originated the idea of a round-the-clock cable news network, he saw news as just one more product to sell. Earlier, he showed his contempt for broadcast journalism by briefly making "Rex the Wonder Dog" the co-anchor for the evening news at his Atlanta TV station. And even while founding CNN, he'd never heard of Dan Rather, much less Daniel Schorr, the veteran newscaster who became CNN's senior reporter.

So why did Mr. Turner succeed so spectacularly? The authors credit him with phenomenal energy and salesmanship, strong leadership skills and a genius for spotting trends. Most of all, his father's example taught him that self-doubt can lead to self-destruction. At tense moments, he sometimes says: "If it doesn't work, I can't do any worse than my father did. I'll blow my goddamn brains out."

The authors present Mr. Turner as a man of ambitions and appetites, with few lasting personal commitments. A self-styled conservative who once worked with Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) in a failed attempt to buy the CBS network, Mr. Turner befriended Fidel Castro and Mikhail Gorbachev. Even before he married Jane Fonda, Mr. Turner was an environmentalist, but from his sportsmanship.

If he has any philosophy, it's protecting his prerogatives as a property owner. After returning from a visit to communist Cuba, he broke a union drive among CNN employees. He later said: "Castro's not a communist. He's like me - a dictator."

Like its subject, Citizen Turner is flashy but ultimately shallow. Written in the breezy, breathless style of a newsmagazine cover story, it offers little analysis of Mr. Turner's work except for trendy pop psychology. It doesn't evaluate the quality of CNN's news coverage or assess its impact.

Maybe this glib, glitzy book is an appropriate biography of Mr. Turner. His life's work may best be described by the epitaph on his father's headstone: A Latin saying that loosely translates as, "What you see is what you get."

David Kusnet wrote "Speaking American: How the Democrats Can Win in the Nineties" and is a syndicated columnist. He was chief speechwriter for President Clinton. He was vice president of People for the American Way. He is a visiting fellow at the Economic Policy Institute.

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