TEDx Talk: Todd on Ted: A Turner we never knew

By on June 11, 2013

JACKSON HOLE, WYO – Respected author and journalist Todd Wilkinson just released his new book on media mogul and billionaire Ted Turner. Wilkinson won Turner’s respect and confidence during a years-long process after the founder of CNN and TBS, and former owner of the Atlanta Braves baseball team, moved to Western Montana near where Wilkinson lives in Bozeman.

In the book, Last Stand: Ted Turner’s Quest to Save a Troubled Planet, (Lyons Press), Wilkinson discovers a softer side of the brash businessman and explores Turner’s “green” underbelly. Turner has quietly (and that’s saying something for the provocateur) bought up 16 ranches in six states. In New Mexico alone, Turner’s holdings equate to one percent of the state’s land.

Wilkinson’s book already is receiving high praise from noted reviewers, including kudos from diverse personalities who know Turner like Mikhail Gorbachev and Tom Brokaw.

The Library Foundation’s Howling Wolf Tour auction will include a talk by Wilkinson in the Ordway Auditorium 7 p.m., Thursday.


JH Weekly: Ted Turner became your ‘neighbor’ a while back. How did you two meet?

Todd Wilkinson: I first met Ted in the spring of 1992. I was on assignment for a magazine that was then owned by Hearst. I was living in Bozeman. Ted had been in Montana only a few years. He purchased the Flying D Ranch for around $22 million, which today is 113,000 acres. It extends from the Gallatin [River] to the Madison [River] – an incredible piece of real estate. He had booted all the cows off. He had torn down the interior infrastructure of barbed wire and fencing. He replaced the cows with bison and made disparaging remarks about cattle, and that really riled the locals up here. There were all sorts of suspicions swirling, including that Turner would subdivide the Flying D and make a huge killing in the real estate market. All sorts of things that turned out to be nonsense.

The timing is crucial, just as timing is important in Jackson. Ted purchased the Flying D just before the release of A River Runs Through It. So pre-River Runs Through It there was not this inundation of outsiders buying ranches as recreational properties, and post- River it was like an explosion that occurred here, and it still reverberates to this day. Ted got in pre-boom.

061213cover2JHW: You’ve enjoyed unparalleled access to Turner in order to write your book. Describe the process. Is there juicy stuff that Turner wouldn’t let in?

Wilkinson: When I was talking to him about doing the book we both wanted ground rules. He had fewer ground rules than I did. One thing that he did is he gave me unlimited access to him. If I could get to him at a given place he would try to provide access. In return I said, “I don’t want to be micromanaged.” He said, “You can ask me any question you want.” I said, “Listen, I’m going to let you read the manuscript and it’s not for approval or not, but I want you to read it for its veracity.”

Well, he never, ever came back to me and said, “That makes me feel uncomfortable.” There was nothing changed in terms of Ted trying to prevent something unbecoming from going to print. And for those who think this might be some kind of puff piece – I think someone described it as my love letter to Ted Turner, which is ridiculous – in fact, we delved into things like his relationship with his father and his relationship with Jane Fonda. We delved into a lot of issues where Ted has been very reluctant to go and that he does not like to talk about publicly. It was a back-and-forth process over many years that ultimately resulted in drawing this stuff out of him.

A real Ted Turner emerges here. He is not a man petitioning for sainthood and my book doesn’t portray him in that way.

JHW: Turner is known for a lot of things. Let’s concentrate first on Turner the conservationist and bison rancher. What led him in that direction?

Wilkinson: Ted basically became a fly-fisherman around age 50. He started that up by coming to the West and that helped orient him to the land in a way he had never been before.

But in terms of his land acquisition and expanding his bison empire, he has tried to identify properties that would be conducive to bison and in most cases a lot of those ranches had been overgrazed by cattle and beaten down simply because of the economics of the operation. He has sympathy for ranchers who are depending upon the land for their livelihood so that they end up running too many cattle, they get caught in drought and the range gets beaten down, and they get caught in that cycle and get further and further behind.

So he’s come in and he’s purchased ranches. Generally they have great water running through them or streams that can be restored because he loves to fly-fish. They’ve got good grass when they are well maintained. He comes in and runs bison at far less than carrying capacity so there is a lot of grass left over for wildlife as well.

For example, at the Flying D Ranch he put a conservation easement on that land that at the time was the largest easement in the West, and part of the regulations he helped write required that he leave 30 percent of the grass for the wild elk, pronghorn, deer and other critters that he shares the land with. He buys a piece of property because he loves it but he also sees opportunity to heal it, re-wild it, or bring it back.

JHW: And he is, like, crazy for bison?

Wilkinson: Bison are a totem species for Ted. He fell in love with them when he was in the East. He first put three bison on a plantation in South Carolina. He soon realized the animals were not loving it there in 95 degree humidity. He realized that if he wanted to have a herd of any size he needed to have land. So he looked West with an eye toward having places where he could build a larger bison herd. It was strictly based on aesthetic reasons and the fact that he really appreciates the animals [as being a] native species once prolific in the West, and he could do something meaningful by helping to restore this once wide-ranging animal that numbered in the tens of millions.

JHW: Turner is known to many by his not-underserved nickname “Mouth-of-the-South.” But he’s not that easy to pigeonhole. He’s a complex man. And there might just be a kinder, gentler Ted somewhere underneath the business bluster and tactless blunder-quotes.

Wilkinson: I’m not a psychologist so I can’t psychoanalyze him, but I think that Ted is basically an introvert who realized early on that in order to elevate his properties he needed to market them; particularly CNN and TBS, where he battled the three major networks. He knew that people wanted to see the figurehead of the company.

Ted Turner is a live wire. He says controversial, politically incorrect things not unlike Jake Nichols, occasionally. But the fact is you do your homework. He’s said things for which he’s had to apologize and all of that. There are people who dislike him because of that. I didn’t write the book to try and convert people. I just wanted to appreciate, as you say, the complex person.

But I will say that the person that I encountered was reflective, was thoughtful. He wasn’t always accessible. We would have to go back and our best interviews were when we were alone and I had the tape recorder running or I was taking notes. We would take long walks in the morning at sunrise and he would open up. And when there weren’t guests around at his properties we had great, very profound discussions. And that doesn’t happen all the time. He has to let his guard down.

JHW: People think they know Turner. After reading your book, they may reconsider their preconceived notions. Politically, for example, he’s fairly three-dimensional.

Wilkinson: I would defy people to easily peg Ted Turner. On the one hand they call him this died-in-the-wool lefty, which implies that he’s been this left-winger all his life when in fact he was once a disciple of Ayn Rand, early on. And because he was married to Jane Fonda. Yet he’s been an enormously successful businessman – a billionaire. Is that conservative or liberal? Is pushing for peace conservative or liberal? Is conserving one’s land, and putting a conservation easement on it, conservative or liberal? Is pushing energy efficiency and water conservation and switching out light bulbs in your restaurant, saving millions of dollars over time, is that conservative or liberal?

So these silly political labels, what good do they really do? If one wants to try and peg Ted Turner down I would ask people: Is Ted Turner [the issue] or the narrowness of your political labels? You give a billion dollars to the UN; does that make you a liberal or a conservative? What about collaborating with Rotary International to eradicate polio? Is that liberal or conservative? People need to open their eyes and get beyond this silliness.

JHW: His passion for conservation, his business acumen, his philanthropic practices – I’m still trying to figure Turner out.

Wilkinson: In order to understand Ted Turner you have to understand his childhood. And his childhood was brutal. He had an emotionally distant father. He was sent away to boarding schools as a young kid. During that time, nature represented his only true place of solace. It was the place where he went to as a refuge. So he’s carried that forward in his life.

When [Ted] was a young man in his 20s his father committed suicide and it left young Ted traumatized. [But before that], when Ted was a late teenager, his young sister, his only sibling, was suffering from lupus. It was very painful and he watched her suffer. The Turner clan had been raised Christians so Ted prayed to God to relieve her suffering. The illness played out for several years. He would be home from his boarding schools and he would hear his sister scream out in pain and, as he says, that was the first time he really started to question his faith: “How can God allow someone you love to suffer?”

Then his father commits suicide and he wonders again, “Where is God in all of this? I’m playing by the rules here. Where is God?” Ted, while he has struggled with organized religion and today that is not his means, is a spiritual person. Jane Fonda has seen it. I’ve seen it. He believes in a higher spiritual power. He also believes there is something after this life. He doesn’t know what it is but he believes that we should try to create heaven on Earth and not wait for that.

JHW: And there’s another area where Turner’s mouth has stepped on some toes?

Wilkinson: He has said some politically incorrect things. One of the things he has said, quoted out of context, is that “Christianity is for losers.” What he meant by that was the Creator gives people a brain to use. Don’t defer important decisions in your life to waiting on someone like God to whisper in your ear to tell you what’s right or wrong. You know with your mind and your heart what’s right and ethical, so act on it. Don’t put things off. That’s what he meant by that. It wasn’t to condemn all Christians. Those people who say that they wait for God to tell them what to do – he’s just incredulous to that.

And we also have to include the influence Jacques Cousteau had on Ted Turner. When people read that chapter in the book their mouths drop because they had no idea. Turner became a friend of Cousteau through the late singer John Denver. Cousteau became a father figure to Ted in addition to being a green mentor. And it was Cousteau, aboard his ship Calypso, who told Turner he needed to make a difference in the world and apply his wealth to addressing some of the problems.

Turner took that seriously. That was in the early 80s – a few years after he founded CNN. From that moment forward he became really serious about thinking about what he could do to help the environment.

JHW: Not everyone has influenced Turner positively. Rupert Murdoch rubs him the wrong way. Turner even invited him to duke it out in a boxing ring.

Wilkinson: It’s funny; they’ve had this friendly rivalry. They’ve battled, rhetorically. Ted asked Rupert Murdoch to [fight him]. Murdoch declined. A little-known story is Ted had Rupert Murdoch out to the Flying D Ranch for a weekend, and they hit it off fine. At the same time, as we all know, they manage their respective media properties very differently.

JHW: The general public knows Turner mostly for the outlandish stuff. Ted Turner the humanitarian goes largely unnoticed. Does he need to fire his PR firm?

Wilkinson: Ted Turner does not believe in issuing press releases that self-congratulate him. He goes about this stuff and he tells his people it’s the satisfaction from doing this stuff that should be gratitude enough.

You know, immediately after the AOL-Time Warner merger, Ted was worth $11 billion. He had 100,000,000 shares worth, at the time, $100 a share. [When things went south] he hung on to that stock. He wasn’t selling his shares as some of his other colleagues were doing as the AOL-Time Warner fiasco played out. He believed the owner should hold onto the shares. That’s how you set an example. You don’t bail out on your own company. He ended up losing the equivalent of $10 million a day, every day, for over two years.

As his finances were shredded he still had this billion-dollar commitment to the United Nations. As his [net worth plummeted to around $3 billion] he didn’t bail on his commitment. In 2014, a few years after he thought he would be able to complete it, he’s going to complete the mission of putting a billion dollars in. Some people would have walked away from their commitment. Turner didn’t. And I should add that addition to the billion dollars to the UN, he’s also fronted a quarter-of-a-billion [dollars] to found the Nuclear Threat Initiative, and the Turner Foundation alone has supported 3,500 different groups and contributed $360 million.

JHW: I’ve heard Turner quoted as saying economy and ecology are not necessarily diametrically opposed concepts. It sounds a lot like Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard’s 3P model: Profit, planet, people.

Wilkinson: Turner often says, “Capitalism isn’t the problem, it’s how we’ve been practicing capitalism.” [Turner doesn’t subscribe to this idea that capitalism is this] endeavor where at the end of the day you have this net depletion of resources. He subscribes to this thing called the “triple bottom line.” You obviously have to have an eye for profits but another leg of the stool is you either do no harm to the environment or improve it, or restore it. And the third thing is the social leg. You have to treat your people well, your employees. You funnel your business into local communities. On all of his ranches he’s funneled millions of dollars of business into the local economy. And, of course, where possible, you give back to society. I think that’s a message that will resonate with some people and with some people they may not cotton to it.

One thing that absolutely needs to be pointed out here – because he gets accused by neocons and right-wingers of this all the time – you know, he’s not some “sugar daddy” or “Daddy Warbucks” that comes in [to various communities with his hobby ranches to raise bison].

Turner is a businessman to the core. He believes in free enterprise system. He knows that nothing is sustainable unless it is economically sustainable. And the last thing that he wants to do is pass along land to the next generation with debt attached to it. Because if it’s going to persist for the long term it has to ultimately pay for itself one way or another.

While on the one hand he rejects the notion of economy-versus-ecology as a false dichotomy, on the other hand he is someone who pays strict attention to the bottom line, and he really has given his ranch managers a mandate to try and find a way to make these ranches pay for themselves.

About Jake Nichols

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