It’s weirdly fitting that Gerald Jay Goldberg and Robert Goldberg, authors of Citizen Turner, this seemingly encyclopedic biography of Ted Turner, are father and son. That’s because their overarching theory of Turner’s rise as a billionaire media mogul — founder of Turner Broadcasting System, creator of such cable linchpins as CNN, owner of the Atlanta Braves and Hawks, controller of the great MGM film library, and on and on — can be summed up thusly: like father, like son. It turns out, you see, that Ed Turner, Ted’s father, was an incorrigible womanizer — and so was Ted (at least until he met Jane Fonda). Ed was a driven entrepreneur with a need to bully those around him — and so was Ted. On the other hand, unlike Ted Turner, at the exact moment in his life when he was poised to make it big, Ed Turner was so overwhelmed by the attendant pressures that he killed himself. And wouldn’t you know it, that fits into the Goldbergs’ theory too. As they see it, his father’s suicide imbued Ted with an extraordinary recklessness, allowing him to take his businesses to the very brink again and again.
As theories go, this is far from implausible. Yet the Goldbergs’ psychological speculations just are not enough to carry Citizen Turner; the result is a book that, despite being stuffed with gossip and anecdotes, is oddly unsatisfying. Part of the problem is that the Goldbergs’ theory has become their crutch; their retelling of Turner’s actual life is otherwise surprisingly pedestrian, with a once-over-lightly quality. One day (for instance), Turner is faced with disaster after buying the MGM movie studio from financial wizard Kirk Kerkorian, paying far more than he should have. The next day, or so it seems, his troubles are behind him and he is a billionaire. The Goldbergs’ explanation of how he got from point A to point B are so cursory as to be practically vaporous.
The larger problem, though, is that Turner himself clearly had no interest in helping the Goldbergs psychoanalyze him. Although the authors interviewed him, his quotes are perfunctory. This is often the reason that biographies of business figures — even larger-than-life figures such as Ted Turner — so often fall flat. Until Turner decides that it is time to reflect, authors like the Goldbergs will continue to have to devise their own theories as to what makes Turner tick — and will continue to write books that come up short. C