Captain Outrageous

By Emily Gold Boutilier / March / April 2002
July 1st, 2007
For a few days in February it seemed everyone in the country was outraged by Ted Turner's address at Brown.

In an Ogden lecture titled "Our Common Future," Turner, the founder of CNN, described the September 11 terrorists as "a little nuts," but "brave at the very least." He also said: "The reason the World Trade Center got hit is there's a lot of people living in abject poverty out there who don't have any hope for a better life." Turner, a Brown trustee, delivered the lecture on February 11 to a full house at the Salomon Center for Teaching.

The Associated Press picked up the story the next day, and the rush of criticism began. " ԂBrave' ought not be applied to men who killed thousands of innocent people," editorialized Turner's local newspaper, the Atlanta Journal and Constitution. "And ԡabject poverty' does not reflect the middle-class upbringing of several of the hijackers or their millionaire chieftain." On Fox News's Hannity & Colmes, host Sean Hannity asked, "Has the mouth from the South finally gone way too far?" He later added that "there is nothing brave and there's nothing courageous ... about people that have a blind-sided attack against innocent men, women, and children." AOL Time Warner, where Turner is vice chairman, quickly distanced the company from his remarks.

It didn't take long for Turner, a member of the class of '60, to issue a statement saying the quotes were reported out of context. Given the loose structure of the speech, however, it was hard to find any context at all.

While his remarks about the terrorists attracted national media attention, much of Turner's speech focused, not on September 11, but on his efforts to solve what he calls the "greatest problems in humanity": nuclear annihilation, population growth, and environmental degradation. In the 1980s, he said, he "wanted to give some business to the Soviets," so he used their satellites to broadcast CNN to Communist countries, thus helping to end the Cold War. "There were a lot of other people working on [ending] it, too," he admitted.

Turner called himself a modern-day Paul Revere. "I'm saying, ԔTo arms, to arms! Environmental degradation, disaster is coming,' " he said. Asking if anyone in the audience had seen the cartoon series Captain Planet, an environmentalist show for children, he said, "I thought of Captain Planet! If humanity somehow does turn it around, partly [the credit] will go to Captain Planet."

During a question-and-answer session, in which Turner invited the audience to "stump the experts," a Cuban-American student grilled the speaker on the subject of Fidel Castro. "I didn't say I admired him," Turner said. "I said I liked him. I am not a Communist and I have never been. And you can check my record." A student from Montana asked Turner why he refused to grant public access to his vast land holdings in that state. "Can I live in your house with you?" Turner retorted. "Where's the man from Cuba?" he asked, referring to the Cuban-American student who'd asked him about Castro. "We believe in private property in this country."

When a student challenged Turner's environmental influence by asking why AOL Time Warner doesn't use recycled paper for its magazines, he replied that he has "no authority at all" at the company. "It's a meaningless title," he said of his position there. "It would be better if I was running the company, but I'm not. I'm vice chairman."

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