CNN grandmaster bows out

Ted Turner's comment about Hitler masked what was meant to be a farewell speech.
The irony of last week's tabloid misinterpretation of Ted Turner's Adolf Hitler analogy is made that much more bitter by the context in which media mogul made his remarks. Turner was using his keynote speech at the National Association of Television Program Executives' annual convention in Las Vegas to say an official farewell to the television industry. The man may be rich enough not to care what he says, but the softly spoken billionaire ain't no Nazi.

"As I'm sure you know, I was phased out of Time Warner management of the networks about five years ago and I have not had, until now, a platform to say goodbye to the industry that I love so much in a proper manner," he said. "I really love this business."

During the session he was asked how he felt about the fact that Fox News, a network many Americans see as a dumbed down propaganda machine for the Bush administration, has now overtaken CNN and major networks such as NBC in the ratings. He responded: "I'm not happy about it. But Adolf Hitler was more popular in Germany in the early 1930s in Germany than the people who were running against him. Just because you are more popular doesn't mean you are right."

What he meant, for those who missed the point, was that biggest doesn't mean best.

Turner continued: "At CNN we lived as though there was a fairness doctrine in effect. We always tried to present both sides of the story. We were raked over the coals for giving the Palestinians a voice so they could tell their side of the story. In a conflict of any kind there are reasons on both sides for that conflict. If you give people a chance to be heard, and you listen, you take away a lot of the anger."

Turner delivered a broadside to the US network television business, accusing it of failing in its responsibility to provide American viewers with the balanced news coverage necessary to support a real democracy.

"When our president said `you are either with us or against us' that is certainly now true of the media," he said. "A little less Hollywood news and a little more hard news would probably be good for society. Our democracy is only as good as the decisions individual voters make, and those voters get their news in particular from television. The people running news organisations have a tremendous responsibility."

He was firm in his condemnation: "Today our news is dumbed down, and important international events are not adequately covered. There is so much fluff these days because those responsible for it know their bosses don't want them to be critical of the government so they won't get into trouble. That is very disturbing. Particularly in these times when we are at war and have other major issues to deal with like climate change."

Turner said media consolidation was in his top five list of concerns. Higher up the list was the possibility of the obliteration of the human race through nuclear war. "That something will go wrong with the nuclear arsenals and we'll incinerate ourselves some afternoon - that will be the greatest tragedy. The second biggest problem we have in the world after that is preserving our environment, particularly moving away from fossil fuels into clean renewable locally produced energy, for our financial security as well as our environmental security. We can't be dependent on the Middle East for something as important as our energy, because they could always switch it off theoretically."

But Turner clearly believes corporate media ownership has a role to play in the decline of mankind. Again, a little ironic for the man who kick- started it with CNN, Cartoon Network, Turner Classic Movies, and ultimately participated in the biggest media merger in history between Time Warner and AOL. "Ninety per cent of the top 50 cable networks in America are owned by the same companies that own the five major broadcast networks. The unprecedented control of a few major players that I predicted was going to happen when the US government relaxed the ownership laws has come into place. There has been complete consolidation. All of the top 30 internet sites are owned by the same companies that own the networks, and most of the radio stations too. Just about everything resides in the ownership of those five companies."

With his attention now focused on his new chain of Bison burger restaurants, Turner is more interested in beating the beef that beating up the media. But the media monster he certainly helped to create remains an issue. "In America today, when we face a problem the rest of the world faces it too because we're so powerful that what we do, rightly or wrongly, really affects just about everyone else on the planet," he said.

One of the most outspoken critics of the Bush administration and the "war on terror", in his 62nd year Turner has turned away from the war hero he set out to be and is now an advocate for peace: "My business career was guided by a Rotary model. Their motto is `he profits most who serves the best'. I like that. And it has worked for me throughout my career.

"To my way of thinking war is never the answer. When I was a boy I was a warrior. I was sent off to military school and spent seven years there. I wanted to go to war and be Alexander the Great (not the one that was in the movie, you know). But when I realised how close we had come to annihilating each other, things changes. With the Cuban missile crisis we came within a button push of the end of the world.

"Martin Luther King became my hero. He was successful in a non-violent way with the civil rights movement. Gandhi was able to get the British to leave India. It took him 40 years to do it, but he did get them to leave, and they left on good terms. Those are my heroes.

"Military force is no longer the answer. It might have worked back in the time of Alexander the Great, but with today's weapons and the complexities and difficulties we have in the world, it make no sense at all to send bombs and missiles into cowsheds and schools and museums. It is obscene. And it is stupid. We've spent $200m destroying Iraq and we now gotta spend $200m to rebuild it if they'll let us, and all to find a nut in a foxhole. What's that all about? Saddam caused no threat to any of his neighbours, particularly with our military presence in the region."

Clearly no Bush supporter, and when asked which of the presidents he had met who had impressed him, Turner added: "I tell you who looks better and better with every passing day is Bill Clinton."

Turner is an exponent of the ask questions first shoot later fraternity. "Go back 20 years and there were numerous conflicts that were resolved peacefully," he said. "One in Central America, one in South Africa, one in Northern Ireland. The one that has not been resolved is the one between Israel and Palestine, and that is a great tragedy. If we had been able to work together as the human race to come to a peaceful solution in Israel we would have had, for the most part, peace in the world. That is the last big conflict.

"This is the thing about war. It has a way of spreading, like a disease. It is very difficult to contain and once you start a war you have a lot of unintended consequences that start to occur. It happen with the two world wars and it happened with Vietnam. When we went into Vietnam the first few military advisers said we'd be home in 90 days; 20 years later they were still there.

"So, I don't like war at all. I think it is time to put it behind us. We have to move to a new higher plane of intellect; either that or we are going to destroy ourselves."

Turner said the biggest mistake he had made in his life had been mergers. "The merger with Time Warner, from a business standpoint, was the right thing to do, but once again a lot of unintended consequences came into play. They went on to merge with AOL, which is widely admitted to be a disaster. I went from owning 9 per cent of the company - which got me some real serious respect - to owning 3 per cent once it was merged with AOL.. They didn't phase me out when I had 9 per cent - they waited until after the AOL merger when I went down to 3 per cent, and then I got my pink slip."

Whatever his epitaph in the media business, Turner did reveal what he plans to put on his tombstone: "I can tell you that much: I have nothing left to say."