Entrepreneur and philanthropist Ted Turner wanted his 1998 address to the UN Association (UNA) to have a major impact. It certainly did when he announced in his matter-of-fact “Ted way” that he was donating $1 billion to support UN causes and activities. The result was the establishment of the UN Foundation. Michael M. Clements interviews the visionary philanthropist to find out what he thinks about the results thus far…
Washington Life: You’ve mentioned that the impetus for your one billion dollar donation was that you wanted something important to say when addressing the UNA. Is that true?
Ted Turner: It was just a thought. I was trying to come up with an idea that would make an impact and help the United Nations. At the time the United States was millions of dollars in arrears – a couple years dues and assessments – and that’s where the original billion-dollar idea came from. I was just so embarrassed by the United States not paying its dues that I thought, well, if I could, I would just make it up myself. Have you ever picked up a tab for someone?
WL: Sure, but, that’s a pretty big tab.
TT: I know, but it’s only money. And you can’t take it with you.
WL: So, it was a spur of the moment decision?
TT: Yes, it was. I talk about it in depth in my book.
WL: Are you happy with the progress of the UN Foundation?
TT: Absolutely. I’m very happy about it.
WL: What would you like to see the foundation do, moving forward?
TT: Continue to make sure that the proceeds help make life easier and better for people on the earth who are in trouble – and there are lots of them.
WL: What are the biggest challenges facing the UN Foundation?
TT: The same challenges that face humanity. The biggest threat that we have to our existence is nuclear weapons. They are right back in the forefront now with the North Korea explosion. Second to that, the greatest threat to the survival of humanity is global climate change. I’m working really hard, and so is the UN Foundation, to try and get an effective agreement passed in Copenhagen. Then all the countries of the world can work together to eliminate fossil fuels.
WL: How do you balance all your work?
TT: With difficulty.
WL: Thoughts on the current state of media?
TT: There’s some of the best journalism being done today. I watch CNN mostly. I watch Fox some, and I watch CNBC, Bloomberg, and MSNBC, but I watch CNN probably more than all the rest of them put together. They are doing some terrific work with long-form news programs, but they are doing quite a bit of tabloid journalism too. It’s hard to make a blanket statement, because some of the journalism being done is as good as it’s ever been, or maybe better, and some is a little on the light side.
WL: Do you think social media is affecting news?
TT: They are having a lot of effect and they are taking a surprisingly, well, maybe not surprisingly, considerable share of the audience, and it seems to be growing. But it’s not something that I watch. I’m 70, a little old for Twittering. I have enough trouble even turning on my television. I have to hit five different buttons before I can turn it on.
WL: Technology makes things “easier,” right?
TT: It’s hard just to drive my new Prius. It doesn’t even have a key. It has a little box that sticks in a hole. Where are my car keys, you know?
WL: Right. Sometimes you just need a set of keys.
TT: The technology has left me, but I have an assistant who helps me so I can make a phone call occasionally …
WL: What’s been the boldest move of your life?
TT: Probably CNN.
TT: I risked the most. I risked it all with CNN. And it had never been done before. So, you know, it was probably the hardest thing.
WL: Where in the world have you been the most affected by the plight of human beings?
TT: I was just in Rwanda and I went to the memorial museum there to see and study what has happened. That was probably the saddest thing that I’ve ever seen. I haven’t been to Auschwitz.
WL: Has the billion-dollar donation changed you?
TT: Well, it made me poorer. Poorer financially, but richer in experience.
WL: The Nationals are having pretty rough start to the season, any advice?
TT: Stick to losing baseball games – if that’s the biggest problem you have, you’re in pretty good shape.
WL: What got you into environmental causes?
TT: I’ve been attracted to the natural world from the time I was a boy old enough to become conscious. I’m fascinated by the natural world. I guess it just caught my attention. But then, I’m fascinated by what humans do too.
WL: Where do you find peace?
TT: Outdoors looking at the birds, the trees, the flowers, and the butterflies…