Luther Spoehr: Review of Ken Auletta, Media Man: Ted Turner's Improbable Empire (Norton, 2004)
MEDIA MAN: Ted Turner's Improbable Empire, by Ken Auletta. Norton. 205 pages. $22.95.
What comes to mind when you hear the name of Brown University's most famous non-graduate, Ted Turner? CNN?"Superstation" WTBS, the Atlanta Braves, and Jane Fonda doing the"tomahawk chop"? It's a Wonderful Life -- colorized? The creation of Time Warner and then AOL Time Warner? A billion dollars for the UN? Or perhaps -- if you're a longtime Rhode Islander --"Captain Outrageous," reeling through the streets of Newport while celebrating victory in the 1977 America's Cup?
This most visible of entrepreneurs has been making headlines for more than a quarter-century. And although Turner's wealth is probably less than a quarter of the 7 billion dollars he had when he reluctantly agreed to Time Warner's disastrous merger with AOL, he's still a player -- albeit more as philanthropist than as mogul.
In 2001, Ken Auletta -- a respected journalist whose previous books include Three Blind Mice, a look at the decline of the major TV networks, and other takes on the businesses of media and high tech -- wrote an award-winning profile of Turner for the New Yorker. Media Man, part of a new series on"Enterprise" from W.W. Norton and Atlas Books, is an extended version of that -- and may be prelude to a still longer biography.
That would be good news, because even at 200 pages this biography leaves us wanting more. Auletta's narrative covers the obligatory territory and features familiar characters: Turner's domineering father, who left his son always struggling to measure up; Jane Fonda, drawn to Turner partly by parental issues of her own; Gerald Levin of Time Warner, Turner's nemesis; and AOL's Steve Case, who proved that sometimes the minnow swallows the whale.
Despite extensive interviews with Turner (and many others) however, Auletta's psychological portraits, while interesting, are not particularly profound. His analysis of the late-1990s' merger mania and the obsession with the alleged benefits of"synergy" probes a little more deeply: for instance, he shows how"profit maximizing" at AOL Time Warner's" content providers" and distributors got in the way of effective vertical integration.
By the time the air went out of that balloon, Turner had been relegated to the corporate sidelines and was more interested in his philanthropic ventures than pioneering a new business. His"dimpled chin, gap-toothed smile and pencil-thin Gable-esque mustache" are, indeed,"still recognizable everywhere."
It will be worth watching for the next installments of Turner's life -- and Auletta's coverage of it.
Luther Spoehr teaches courses on 20th-century America at Brown University.
Reprinted from the Providence Sunday Journal, November 14, 2004.
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