Thursday, November 13, 2008

Ted Turner: Man of Mystery

Ted Turner once called audience members with crucifix-marked foreheads “Jesus freaks” one Ash Wednesday and believes global warming will ultimately cause humans to become cannibals.

Yet there is more to Turner than his propensity for raucous hyperbole and politically incorrect jest.

In his new book, Call Me Ted, according to reviews, Turner wants to tell you about the rise of CNN, his sporting adventures retaining the America's Cup and winning the World Series with the Atlanta Braves, the inner-workings of the infamous deal with Time Warner and ill-fated merger with AOL. But save for intimate details of his divorce from Jane Fonda, there is little new information about his life, and that seems to suit Turner well.

According to a New York Times article, writer Bill Burke wrote a flattering and lengthy magazine article entitled "Leadership Lessons I Learned From Ted Turner," which resulted in Turner immediately offering Burke the job of writing his memoirs. Burke has never written a book before.

What did Turner get by choosing Burke rather than an author with more gravitas for the autobiography (for which Grand Central Publishing paid an advance of $5 million)? Turner's agent Morton Janklow seems to indicate that, despite worries about Burke's inexperience, Turner's comfort with the author was a fair trade off for the lack of a big-name writer.

A review in the San Francisco Chronicle gets to the heart of Turner's entrepreneurial spirit, comparing him to other contemporary tech visionaries who stumbled once their dream was established.
Turner is a perfect visionary for a start-up; a leader who might make mistakes, but who will always be ready to work harder than the next guy and turn a crazy idea into a successful organization. But once the idea is realized, the charismatic visionary can be out of place.
The hard-charging Turner can be seen here in a 60 Minutes segment on the 1977 America's Cup.

In a dispute over the purchase of sails, Turner tells Walter Cronkite if his competitor is winning by the end of the race, "We'll sink them," before adding, "That would be unsportsmanlike conduct, I'm sure."

The irascible Turner continues to be the philanthrophic man of mystery thoroughly romanticized in American culture. A sort of gap-toothed, free-wheeling Bruce Wayne of cable news who still thinks you should try some bison meat.

Turner will appear at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco Wednesday, November 19 at noon and in San Jose.


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