Ted Turner: Telling It Like It Is

Earlier this week, Reuters hosted a conversation with United Nations Foundation founder Ted Turner. Highlights from the transcript are below the fold.

As you can see, the straight talking former CNN owner does not mince his words, and is astoundingly funny. See especially his tale of the $1 billion pledge. You’ll enjoy. On the U.N., the cold war, and the demand for global governance

Q: It’s interesting that it was nine years yesterday, I believe, in this very city that you announced your intention to pledge $1 billion over ten years to the United Nations. And in doing my research, I came across a wonderful headline, it actually made me smile. It said, “Ted Turner shocks the world with his $1 billion pledge to the U.N.” Thinking about it, you probably shocked yourself more than you shocked the world, didn’t you? It wasn’t like that you spent a lot of time thinking about this.

TT: Not that. But I had thought about trying to do what I could to strengthen the U.N., particularly during those years preceding my pledge where the United States just wasn’t paying its dues. And with CNN, I was following the global situation all the time and I absolutely certain we would not have made it through the Cold War without the U.N. We wouldn’t have made it. There would have been a war. I mean when Khrushchev at the U.N. took his shoe off and hit the podium, he was so mad! But he got a place to let off steam. If the U.N. hadn’t been there, that would have war right then. The Cuban Missile Crisis. We wouldn’t be here without it.

We have to have a global governance of some sort. We have to have it. And the U.N.’s not perfect. It structurally needs to be reformed. The Security Council, it just doesn’t make sense to have only five countries and the victors of World War Two. I mean Germany and Japan, that was 60 years ago. They’re both two of the most peaceful and best run countries in the world. They have a right to be there. India’s not represented on the Security Council. No country from the Muslim world and no country from South America is represented. It’s not representative. And if we got a Congress or a Senate like that in the United States, where many states like New York had no representation, we wouldn’t go along with it either. We’d want to reform it.

The untold history of the United Nations Foundation:

Q: But coming back to the pledge, I mean you said that this was a decision you took over the course of 48 hours.

TT: Right. Maybe 72.

Q: Maybe 72. (Laughter) How did it come about?

TT: Well, I had been awarded the United Nations Association, which is a group that promotes the U.N. here in the United States. I’ve been given their award for contributions to the U.N. for the year and I was coming up to New York. I came up here a lot. And when I got on the plane I started thinking about my speech because I always plan real far in advance. I had plenty of time anyway. And I said, “Well, what am I going to say at the night of the dinner?” (Laughter) Well, first, I said, “What’s the biggest problem that the U.N. has? The biggest problem the U.N. had at that time was they weren’t getting paid by their biggest member, the United States, which was about a billion dollars in arrears. And my first idea was, “I’ll announce that I will give the U.N. a billion dollars. (Laughter) And pay the U.S. dues, basically to get them current.” And hopefully, the U.S., it would embarrass the Congress and from then on they would pay their dues was the thought.

And so I called my office and talked to my lawyer and my top advisors and I said, “I want to announce” — I don’t know what day of the week it was — “but I want to announce in two days I’m going to the U.N. dinner. I want to announce that I’m giving a billion dollars to the U.N.” “Oh, we need months to look at all the tax consequences and blahblahblah.” And I said, “Well, you got 48 hours.” (Laughter) And I said, “And I want to tell Kofi Annan about it so it doesn’t come as a surprise. You have, really, a day and a half.”

And so they called me back that evening and they said, “You can’t do it.” They said, “The U.N. can’t take a private donation. It’s just only people who give the U.N. money, or member states. They don’t have a set-up for it and it’s against their rules. You can’t give them a billion dollars.”

So I said, “Oh, thank you, god.” (Laughter) I wasn’t that rich then. I was worth about three billion. So it was a third of everything I had. And I was still in my fifties, I think. So that’s pretty early to be giving everything away. Warren’s giving it all away, or not all, but giving away billions. But he’s in his eighties. You know, the closer you come to the end, the less money really, you know, you can’t buy youth. That’s one of the things you can’t buy. A lot of other things you can’t buy either.

But at any rate, so I said, “Well, the Lord just didn’t want me to give that money to them. I got my billion dollars back.” But then I had trouble sleeping. And I didn’t feel as good as I had when I was going to give the billion dollars to the U.N. So I thought, “Well, if I can’t give the money directly to the U.N., how about starting a foundation that worked parallel to the U.N. where the money could be funneled into U.N. causes?”

And so I called my boys back in Atlanta and I said, “How about if I start a foundation that works with the U.N. and does the same thing but using that structure?” And they thought for a little while. They said, “Give us an hour or so to think about that.” And they didn’t get much sleep either. And they called back, “We think that’ll work.”

So I saw Kofi the next day. I called him up and I said, “I’m going to announce tonight that I’m giving you a billion dollars, and through a foundation.” And the most amazing thing was getting the name. I thought I’m good at naming things Goodwill Games, CNN, Superstation. I even named a hockey team The Thrashers. They were going to thrash the opposition. So far they’ve just been thrashed. (Laughter) I haven’t been running them either, so they can’t hang that one on me. Anyway, so I asked him, I said, “We need a name. The U.N. Foundation. Can we use your name and can we use your trademark?” And he said, “I’ll have to go to Security Council and ask them about that.” That’s a pretty big deal. Like going to Coca-Cola and saying, “Can I use the Coca-Cola trademark?” And I didn’t offer any money for it.

But they had to have a lot of trust because what if I had been a wacko? What if we’d had really been wacky instead of getting along with them. We’ve never had an argument, really, with (Inaudible) I don’t think. And that’s been nine years. So anyway, that was how it happened and I’ve never looked back. I never regretted it. I’m so proud that I did that because then the U.S. did pay the dues within the next 12 months. And things took a turn for the better.

On the role of media and nuclear disarmament:

Q: Let’s look for the moment at the Islamic world, just briefly. There’s another question from one of our readers. This man has a name. So, I’ll ask you. His name’s Jeff Burns(?). And he says, “You obviously know a lot about mass communications, Mr. Turner. What can the international media, and the American media specifically, do to improve our understanding of the Islamic world, and their understanding of the West?

TT: Well, my covering it honestly and intelligently. And regularly. We need to understand all people that are like us, and that are different than us. We need to have more understanding. That’s one of the reasons that I started CNN, and did my best to try and get them to concentrate as much as I could on serious international news, so that people would be better informed. Because if we don’t have the right information today, we’re doomed. And the human situation, right now, I liken to a baseball game. It’s the seventh inning, and we’re down by two runs. That’s humanity. And our backs are to the wall. And global warming, nuclear weapons, nuclear proliferation, population explosion, environmental degradation that’s occurring in virtually every ecosystem all over the world, we’re already two billion people live on less than two dollars a day, and one billion live on less than one dollar a day. We’ve already got a catastrophe on our hands. Without precedent in the history of the world. And if we don’t get it straight, just on global warming alone, God forbid a nuclear war springing up, and more and more proliferation, we’ve got to get rid of all nuclear weapons as quickly as we possibly can. And that’s the only way we’ll stop proliferation.