Anyone who has ever spent face time with Ted Turner prays he won't fade into the sunset to peddle bison burgers or remain content to push Gods & Generals— a film about the Civil War, one of his passions, which he also bankrolled for $90 million.
For better or worse Turner — a grizzled, 64-year-old minister without portfolio — has become a raging bull since he stepped down as vice chairman of troubled giant AOL Time Warner Inc.
He's steamed, even though he voted for the deal. He was squeezed out of a company to which he brought many valuable assets, like Cable News Network. And with that company's stock precariously on the wane, he has seen most of his personal fortune go down the drain.
In a slew of recent interviews, Turner proclaims he is a liberated man who wishes he had bailed out in 1996, when he sold Turner Broadcasting System Inc. to Time Warner Inc.
He's also selling off his AOL Time Warner stock, spooking the Street and exasperating the company's senior executives, who are grappling with the idea of selling off assets to pay debt.
That's a move Turner has criticized, even though the man himself had encouraged management to sell off America Online. Now folks are saying that Turner is wielding more power as an outsider — albeit a powerful one who still sits on the board and is the company's single largest shareholder.
So how can AOL Time Warner chieftain Dick Parsons harness this raging bull? To Parsons's credit, he's been doing some of that all along, based on some of the company's recent decisions — moves that Turner had, in fact, lobbied for, like steering CNN back to its roots.
But it's a sad indictment that corporate America has become a place where companies the size of AOL Time Warner have no room or tolerance for a visionary like Turner.
Is he a loose cannon? You bet.
But let's not forget what truly great people can do. CNN — Ted Turner's creation — went off the ratings chart in 1991 with its Gulf War coverage, catching all other newsgathering organizations off guard. Soon other media entities raced to emulate his success, creating competing channels.
Now, 12 years later — as the country marches toward another war with Iraq — CNN is lagging in the ratings competition. So why not find a creative role for Turner there? After all he paid more attention to world events back in 1991, a time when other media executives were content to provide pabulum about Hollywood idols.
Turner has always seen the world for what it is — often a terrifying place. He has contributed to society, helping to build a better world. He was never one to sweat the quarterly profit-and-loss statement to placate Wall Street.
His good deeds and concern for the world resulted in corporate profits. It can happen, as Turner has proven.
Turner is a philanthropist and a creative genius. The folks at AOL Time Warner need him more than ever as we enter a new era in history.
The angry Turner should not be sitting on the sidelines, ruminating about the Civil War. He should be working side by side with the folks at AOL Time Warner as an ally in a new age of clear and present danger.
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