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TURNER ON WAR, MURDOCH, MEDIA

Apr 21, 2003  •  Post A Comment

Ted Turner spends a lot of his time and money opposing war and nuclear destruction, which has placed him at odds with his longtime nemesis Rupert Murdoch and what he says is Fox News’ exploitation of the war in Iraq to boost ratings.
“He’s a very dangerous person. He’s proven it during this war,” Mr. Turner said to TVWeek about Mr. Murdoch, chairman and CEO of News Corp., which owns Fox News. “He’s been willing to have his media support the war in a most surprising fashion. He’s exploiting this war to help build the circulation for his television network and his newspapers. This is Murdoch’s war.”
Indeed, there has been considerable press attention on how News Corp.’s English-language newspapers, magazines and TV newscasts reflect and capitalize on Mr. Murdoch’s conservative political views, particularly in wartime.
“It’s so easy to fan the flames of patriotism, because everyone wants to feel patriotic. But when the media exploits those patriotic feelings to encourage a war where there isn’t one, you wonder what the limits are he’ll go to to promote his own position,” said Mr. Turner, who has been taken to task on the front pages of News Corp. tabloids such as the New York Post. Five years ago, the barbs flew so ferociously between the two media moguls they were ordered to call a truce. Mr. Murdoch and News Corp. declined to comment on Mr. Turner’s most recent remarks.
The meteoric rise of Mr. Murdoch’s right-wing Fox News, strengthened by wartime competition, has reopened old wounds. CNN, which Mr. Turner created more than two decades ago, struggles to be dominant in the round-the-clock war coverage the network pioneered in the 1990s.
“The ratings were very close between CNN and Fox in prime time during the coverage of the war. They are not trying to be objective at all. They are trying to be cheerleaders,” Mr. Turner said in an extensive interview. “They clearly have struck a chord with a certain segment of the audience.”
In the wake of News Corp.’s announced $6.6 billion acquisition of Hughes Electronics and its DirecTV satellite unit, Mr. Turner concedes, “I am very concerned about the power Rupert Murdoch is consolidating.”
The chance of government regulators blocking or significantly qualifying the deal is “highly unlikely,” he said. “Our regulatory agencies are a joke; they don’t stop anything.”
For Mr. Turner, this is much more than an arm-wrestle for TV news ratings or who owns the most prime media real estate. This is an ideological battle for the hearts and minds of America.
“It’s time to start putting war behind us. If we don’t, we’re all going to be dead. Sooner or later, this course we’ve all been on follows to extinction. Violence begets violence. Martin Luther King, who was an expert in this field, said, `We must pursue peaceful ends through peaceful means,”’ Mr. Turner said, motioning to the small brass busts of Martin Luther King and Gandhi on his desk in the new Atlanta headquarters of Turner Enterprises.
Lifelong Endeavor
For Mr. Turner-too often portrayed as the beleaguered media mogul who lost $7 billion in a bet on AOL Time Warner-the business of fending off war and nuclear proliferation is a lifelong endeavor. In the early 1980s his then-developing Turner Broadcasting System produced the post-Cold War Profile of America and Profile of the Soviet Union, launched and sustained The Goodwill Games and produced an endless stream of socially proactive documentaries.
So it is not surprising that Mr. Turner has spent the past several years salvaging the eight-hour documentary Avoiding Armageddon, which began airing on PBS April 14. The project, which is part of Mr. Turner’s $250 million in funding for his Nuclear Threat Initiative, was nearly scrapped when AOL Time Warner shut down Turner Broadcasting’s documentary unit in a cost-cutting move several years ago. The Nuclear Threat Initiative, which Mr. Turner co-chairs with former Senator Sam Nunn, aims to reduce nuclear, biological and chemical threats.
Such ideological efforts have remained a constant for Mr. Turner in all the years he has been riding the media merry-go-round, trying and failing to grab what he still considers to be the big brass ring-a broadcast TV network.
Mr. Turner concedes he doesn’t have the resources or platform to make another run for major media assets, and he laments not having snared one of the broadcast networks-particularly NBC-when he had the chance in the early 1990s and when Time Warner had the opportunity after acquiring TBS.
“I think it’s a big mistake that we didn’t end up with one of them. If we had acquired NBC instead of merging with AOL, we’d have a $40 stock instead of a $12 stock now. That’s what I wanted them [Time Warner] to do,” Mr. Turner said. “Besides, it would make no sense to buy a stand-alone network. That would have to be part of AOL Time Warner. The broadcast networks are all part of vertically integrated media conglomerates now. I think AOL is disadvantaged long term by not having one of the major broadcast networks, but at the current time, they can’t even think about it with the debt situation there. They are liquidating assets to pay off debt, not making acquisitions.”
In fact, Mr. Turner’s more recent pursuits have been dominated by the media company whose current cash flow and asset base are anchored by the Turner Broadcasting System cable networks and other properties he sold to Time Warner in 1996-five years before the AOL Time Warner merger.
“Everybody-every analyst, every columnist, every person-said at the time that the merger was the greatest thing since sliced bread. I had doubts about it, but every one of my financial advisers said not to worry about the broadband thing. They said they’ll figure something out; they are powerful enough.
“I’ve been the largest shareholder in the largest media company. I’ve been crushed financially. I’m not in danger of going broke. I’m still wealthy, but it’s a fraction of what I had before, and I don’t really have the financial wherewithal to have another major move in the media business,” Mr. Turner said.
Regrets
If he had it to do over again, would he have sold to Time Warner? “Of course not,” he said,“knowing what I know now, that they were going to merge with AOL.”
But the decision had more to do with the fatigue of running the company for 23 years than with pure finances, he said. Then, everything “was a start-up or a turnaround. MGM was a turnaround. We certainly didn’t make a major mistake. We were right every time. Turner Classic Movies worked. Cartoon Network worked. TNT worked. TBS worked. CNN and CNN Headline News worked.”
Although cable networks have proved to be much better investments over the past 20 years “by a gigantic margin,” buying or building one from scratch simply has become a cost-prohibitive, uphill battle, Mr. Turner said.
Today, the power of the media is controlled by too few, he said.
“Even if I could have afforded to buy CNN and operate it myself, it would be a very risky business venture standing alone,” Mr. Turner said, adding that he would not mind seeing CNN sold to the right party if AOL Time Warner needed to raise funds to pay down debt.
“But I’ve had it with media. I don’t have any infrastructure. I don’t have a media platform to operate from anymore,” Mr. Turner said.
“With the consolidation, the companies are so large. Today, the cable companies are large and they have a lot of leverage. The programmers are large and they have a lot of leverage,” he said. “The days of starting up a cable-television network or trying to do it from outside the media business are over. It’s almost impossible. It’s sad for our country. You’ve got Sumner, Rupert, General Electric, Disney and AOL-I don’t even want to say that name-determining everything we see and hear in news and entertainment.”
Mr. Turner’s need to keep his contrarian views in the mix played a role in his recent decision to remain on the AOL Time Warner board of directors, despite his forced resignation as the company’s vice chairman at next month’s annual share
holders meeting and his steady sale of company stock to pay bills.
He opted to remain on the board “because a lot of people asked me to,” he said. “I thought I could represent the shareholders’ interest better inside the company than outside. There are certain advantages to being outside the company. It was not an easy decision to make, but it was the right decision at this time.
“I’m trying to help Dick and the other board members the best I can to work our way out of the situation we’re in,” Mr. Turner said, referring to AOL Time Warner CEO Richard Parsons. “I think we’re close. I like Dick a lot and always have. He’s got a very tough job, under very difficult circumstances. I think he’s doing fine so far. I’m certainly pulling for them, but AOL already is being valued by Wall Street at zero, even though it still has almost $1 billion of cash flow. You can’t get much worse than that.”
Little wonder, then, that about a year ago Mr. Turner joined forces with longtime friend and business partner George McKerrow Jr. to open a string of Ted’s Montana Grill restaurants. Eighteen of them will roll out by year-end with about 80 planned within four years. Turner raises 35,000 bison on his 2 million acres of ranch land in six states to support the restaurants’ featured bison burgers.
“The restaurant business is young and the board meetings are full of enthusiasm, the way Turner Broadcasting used to be,” Mr. Turner said.
Turner Enterprises, the umbrella company that embraces his diverse business ventures, includes the Ted’s Montana Grill restaurants, his ranches and the film and documentary companies that support the work of his philanthropic foundations.
Mr. Turner’s new Atlanta business home is a modest, compact, renovated nine-story landmark building on Luckie Street, a few blocks away from CNN Center. In his adopted hometown (he was born in Cincinnati), Mr. Turner said he is getting a new lease on life.
“In a way, while I do miss the media business, I have done that for 40 years. If I had not been forced out of media, I probably wouldn’t have had the time or the thought process to go into philanthropy as I did. I dove into that over a 10-year period while I was moving out of the media business. You could make a case that I made a greater contribution to the overall global good by doing that than if I had stayed in media and kept punching it out with Rupert and Sumner, doing the same old thing. They are still selling 30-second spots to advertisers. They are still doing the same old things. I’m doing totally different things than I was 10 years ago.”